A Landscape of Learning

By Catherine Black '94

An Ambitious Endeavor

Four years ago, a group of Punahou's Junior School faculty and administrators undertook the challenge of reimagining the learning environments for grades 2 – 5. After the successful completion of Case Middle School and the Omidyar K – 1 Neighborhood, they knew that this was the final step in a 20-year journey of transformation for Punahou's Junior School.

"In 1999, when Steve Case made the lead gift for the middle school, I remember [Punahou Board of Trustees Chair] Duncan MacNaughton '62 saying, 'we're about to rebuild the entire Junior School,'" reflects President Jim Scott '70. "With over 2,000 students and 160 teachers, it's exciting to see something of this scale come to fruition."

He adds: "The overall program direction and conceptual design have been established. This year, led by Junior School Principal Mike Walker and the grades 2 – 5 steering committee, the faculty will continue to refine the details and interrelationships of instructional spaces that will inspire our next generation of learners."

"The overall program direction and conceptual design have been established. This year, led by Junior School Principal Mike Walker and the grades 2 – 5 steering committee, the faculty will continue to refine the details and inter-relationships of instructional spaces that will inspire our next generation of learners." – President Jim Scott '70

The steering committee knew how brain research was radically altering notions of how children learn – demonstrating, for example, why inquiry-based, interdisciplinary instruction has a more lasting impact than traditional content memorization. On top of that, the technological revolution catalyzed by the Internet was toppling concepts that had sustained education for centuries – such as the teacher's role as a repository and conveyor of knowledge.

They also knew that creating a 21st-century learning environment meant anticipating more transformations in the near future, and that the new spaces would require an unprecedented degree of adaptability, flexibility and scalability. So, taking a cue from their own instructional culture, they set out to do some research.

Between 2011 and 2012, the steering planning committee visited a number of institutions to better understand how space and learning intersect. They spent time at Harvard University, the Stanford d.school, the headquarters of innovation giants like Apple and Google, and the San Francisco Children's Creativity Museum, among others. At each stop, they noted themes that surfaced repeatedly in these dynamic 21st-century spaces: openness, flexibility, playfulness and design that intentionally fostered creativity and collaboration.

This plunged the group into its own design-thinking process in 2012 to imagine the ideal educational environment for children between the ages of 7 and 10. The members emerged with a set of guiding principles to describe the new neighborhood and the type of learning it would nurture.

Jack Maretzki '24 greets one of Ka Punahou's resident turtles.

In the fall of 2013, a search was initiated for an architectural design firm that could be, as Scott put it, "an educational thought partner who understands that this school – this place – is larger than any one of us or our designs."

For the first time in its long history of capital projects, Punahou did not simply select a design firm, but broadcast an open call for qualifications to architectural studios in Hawai'i and beyond. Sixteen firms responded, and three of them were invited to submit design proposals based on the principles articulated by the planning committee and by the School's long-term Campus Master Plan.

The firm that was eventually selected, Design Partners Incorporated (DPI), had never worked with Punahou before, but the Board of Trustees and leadership recognized in their team a willingness to listen deeply and produce a design that reflected the School's aspirations. Much of this listening took place throughout the spring and early summer of 2014, in a series of design charrettes involving faculty, staff, administrators, trustees and outside experts.

"When you have multiple constituencies in a design process like this, how you capture and engage people where it really matters, and manage everybody's opinion to a place where there is agreement, is probably the most interesting part," observes Punahou Trustee David Carey.

DPI Principal Kendall Ellingwood reflects on the thoroughness of the process, which will continue throughout the coming months as faculty anticipate how their teaching goals can help to reimagine learning environments. "I'm really impressed by the teachers and everybody we've had a chance to work with. We see this as an example of Punahou's very forward thinking. A lot of the time we are teaching the client, but in this case we're learning just as much from the School. A lot of that is because we've had so much access to the faculty and a chance to really understand their thinking."

A Landscape of Learning

Punahou's faculty has been undergoing a pedagogical transformation in recent years as research demonstrates that there is no single formula for authentic learning. While the traditional approach to teaching has been to shepherd children down a single pathway from point A (blank slate) to point B (completing a curriculum with specific content targets), the reality is that each child's learning profile is a complex set of potential outcomes that manifest differently under different conditions. The industrial model of education takes a "one size fits all" approach, but our brains and bodies demonstrate the reality that no two children are identical.

"The new neighborhood is going to be supportive of different kinds of learners," says grades 3 and 5 Supervisor John Nagel '90. "For a long time, we've said 'OK, by the end of this grade level you need to know this content,' when, in fact, the landscape of learning is not a linear path, but more like a personal journey that's organic and can grow in different directions. We've come to realize that at different times and for different types of content, students engage in different ways. Our hope is that we are engaging all kids at all levels, wherever they are."

The key to engagement, many educators are discovering, is meeting children where their own curiosity becomes a powerful incentive for learning. This inquiry-based approach, which was explored throughout the Junior School last year, channels children's natural inquisitiveness into meaningful growth experiences.

Left to right: Monroe Eads '23, Hina Ricardo '23, Kiyera Werny '23, Iris Sim '23, Eleanor Cowell '23 and Megan Uyeno '23 (back) take their creativity outside for a project to redesign the recess experience for second-graders.

"Knowledge and skill are no longer an end in themselves," says grade 5 faculty Monica Mamiya '77 McLaren, who has seen dramatic results in her classroom since she adopted the inquiry approach. "Kids still need foundational knowledge, but the question is what are you going to do with it? What is interesting to you in terms of how to apply it? How does it affect you? How are you going to use it to change someone's perception? How can you use it to change the world?"

"In the Omidyar K – 1 Neighborhood, kids' innate curiosity is allowed to blossom," observes Nagel. "In grades 2 – 5, we hope to turn that curiosity into a passion so that they are able to say 'I'm really interested in this particular topic and I want to continue to learn about it.' It's that continuum from curiosity to passion, and even action, that we're interested in."

Whether it's understanding global economics by creating a "Market Day" or developing digital literacy by building stop-motion animation films, an environment that gives teachers the flexibility to create a variety of dynamic hands-on experiences offers more ways to bring student inquiry to life.

The shift away from prepackaged content and standardized delivery methods is also changing the role of teachers. "What's interesting is that they no longer have to be an expert in all subjects," says Nagel, though he quickly adds, "but they do need to be an expert at learning."

"In the past, the teacher was the arbiter of knowledge and decider of what was valuable and why. Now, my role is more that of a facilitator. I'm looking at individual children and thinking about what I can give each one to propel them forward." – Grade 5 faculty Monica Mamiya '77 McLaren

"In the past, the teacher was the arbiter of knowledge and decider of what was valuable and why," says McLaren. "Now, my role is more that of a facilitator. I'm looking at individual children and thinking about what I can give each one to propel them forward. Before, I was looking at giving all kids the same thing in the same amount of time. The knowledge and skill attainment would take 75 percent of my teaching time and the application would take 25 percent. Now it's the opposite.

"But what's even more exciting is to watch the kids teach each other and ignite each other's curiosity. I cannot plan those moments – they can only happen in what I like to call 'the wild.' I used to teach in a zoo, in a very controlled environment where everybody had to do things a certain way by a certain time, but now we're in the wild. And the wild is much more interesting, provocative and useful for their future because these kids are going to be in the wild."

It's not just being adept at nudging students along their personal journeys of discovery, but knowing how to collaborate and create a community that embraces diverse learners, says grades 2 and 4 Supervisor Julie Crane-Cory. "Every student is different and that's why we need a group of teachers working together collaboratively; you may see one thing but I will see another. By capitalizing on specific strengths of co-teachers, it's possible to further personalize instruction. We all have our different styles and expertise, so we need to allow for that flexibility among the teachers – instead of saying 'I'm going to teach all things to all my kids.'"

Ideas like these demand a reexamination of learning environments in order to be thoroughly explored. The difference between fixed, proprietary classrooms and open, shared spaces for a teacher's instructional options can be enormous. In the conventional classroom, there is a standard ratio of one teacher to 25 students with a primary design feature being the fixed "teaching wall." Something as simple as a sink or an outdoor area can open a whole world of activities beyond the usual desks. The option to physically combine classes becomes real when space is as malleable as a teacher's lesson plans.

This rationale lies behind the relatively simple, but highly flexible spaces of the new 2 – 5 structures, which will be equipped with moveable walls and furniture for maximum adaptability to different teaching ideas. The spaces are being designed to support faculty as they continue to explore larger and smaller group settings, mixed age levels and activities that include a significant dose of hands-on, experiential learning.

"For a long time, we've said 'OK, by the end of this grade level you need to know this content' when, in fact, the landscape of learning is not a linear path, but more like a journey that's organic and can grow in different directions." – Grades 3 and 5 Supervisor John Nagel '90

The 21st-Century Library

A Learning Commons and Creative Hub for K – 8 Students

If any building in the new neighborhood exemplifies the attributes of 21st-century learning, it is the K – 8 Learning Commons. Envisioned as an extension of the Julia Ing Learning Center, it is anticipated to be the creative hub of the Junior School. While the second floor will serve primarily as a resource for information, with appropriately quiet and reflective areas, the first floor will be a humming collection of makeries, technology labs, gathering places and studios for music and the performing arts.

The Learning Commons is where students might go to research a question and develop an answer (or at least a prototype) as they delve into inquiry projects that connect them to the real-world issues beyond their classrooms.

An artistic interpretation of the future K – 8 Learning Commons.

"I see the Learning Commons as a K – 8 creative learning center and what happens in the classrooms as an extension of this instructional hub," says Junior School Principal Mike Walker. "Access to information is not teacher-centric anymore. Students are not only engaged in unbound access to story and information, but they can also be the creators of content. Upstairs is where all the information will be. Downstairs is the three-dimensional world."

The Learning Commons, equipped with a diversity of resources and spaces that encourage children to experiment, build, collaborate, share and explore, will be a focal point and natural gathering place for the entire K – 8 community. The brainstorming that continues to drive the thinking behind the K – 8 Learning Commons is part of an ongoing schoolwide conversation about the future of libraries and the role of information today. As such, it embodies the spirit of creativity and innovation that students will need as they enter the 21st-century wild.

"The existing landscape differentiates this project from others. It presents a wonderful opportunity to make a more direct connection between Ka Punahou and the rest of the campus in a way that did not occur before, by really celebrating the spiritual nature and beauty of the Lily Pond rather than turning our back on it." – President of PBR HAWAII Stan Duncan '73

The Lands of Ka Punahou

One of the defining characteristics of the grades 2 – 5 neighborhood is that outdoor spaces will be central to the overall design. The difficult decision to build two-story studios was made in order to double the green space in this part of campus. Unlike previous projects, which addressed the outdoors once the buildings had been defined, the landscape architect and outdoor education faculty were part of the design process from the beginning.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates how exercise, play and a connection to nature impact children's physical and neurological development. Punahou's spectacular setting presents an opportunity to create thoughtful outdoor spaces that go beyond the usual playing fields, jungle gyms and decorative landscaping.

"We've recognized that learning takes place outside as much as inside, and what kids learn depends on the environment you put them in," says Nagel. "On a flat, grassy space where you play ball or tag, the kinds of skills that develop are more hierarchical and related to survival of the fittest. Whereas if you have a wild space, you're fostering creative leadership where children will interact and socialize in a different way." If the new buildings must be flexible enough to facilitate a rich variety of learning experiences, the outdoor spaces should do so as well.

"Kids need to have access to places that are natural, where they can touch and step into and divert water instead of just looking at it, where they can start to understand how ecosystems work, where even time flows differently than in the classrooms and other spaces in their daily lives," says Punahou Outdoor Education faculty David Blanchette.

"Part of my job as a landscape architect and designer is to really listen to what the faculty are saying," says PBR HAWAII President Stan Duncan '73. "I think it's also important that we not design everything to the nth degree, that we leave the teachers room to express themselves and grow into the space, rather than turning it over all finished and saying 'here you go.'"

The project envisions a rich array of outdoor environments that range from open lawns to exploratory spaces to areas that deliberately incorporate opportunities for Hawaiian studies and sustainability education. Ideas include terracing on the slope above Ka Punahou for lo'i kalo (wetland taro patches) and other native plants; a natural forest environment on the mauka slope of Barwick Playground; an outdoor amphitheater; and a flowing water system to unify the entire neighborhood and connect it with the springs of Ka Punahou.

Cody Craven '25 explores the maze of Punahou's historic banyan tree branches.

Grade 3 faculty Haunani Dalton '70 Abdul is looking forward to seeing the Hawaiian Studies curriculum further enriched by the proposed expansion of the outdoor environment. "Whether it's making kapa from a wauke plant or harvesting 'uala (sweet potato), cooking it in the imu and then enjoying it at the Third Grade Lu'au – when students can actively engage in these experiences, instead of just reading about them in a book or seeing a movie – it makes their learning real. Right now we go all over the island to visit lo'i, but to think that this learning could take place right here at Ka Punahou, a living classroom where you can conduct experiments on the water quality, study the animals that live there, plant, harvest and malama (care for) the lo'i all year-round ... these possibilities are really exciting for us."

"The existing landscape differentiates this project from others," observes Duncan. "It presents a wonderful opportunity to make a more direct connection between Ka Punahou and the rest of the campus in a way that did not occur before, by really celebrating the spiritual nature and beauty of the Lily Pond rather than turning our back on it."

One of the faculty's design principles for the neighborhood is "keeping Hawaiian values and studies at the core of the 2 – 5 experience" and it is fueling a discussion to expand the Hawaiian studies curriculum, which has long been a hallmark of third grade, to other grade levels.

"We have a unique opportunity to imagine and create tomorrow's ahupua'a within these lands of Ka Punahou," says Scott, referencing the self-sustaining Hawaiian social and geographical system defined by a watershed and often running from the mountain to the sea. As a metaphor for the new neighborhood, the ahupua'a echoes Hawaiian values of stewardship, community and a deep connection to place. It also celebrates Punahou's storied landscape, anchored by the uplands of Pu'u o Manoa (Rocky Hill) and the waters of Ka Punahou.

Perhaps more than any project in the School's history, the new neighborhood for grades 2 – 5 is intentionally building upon Punahou's deep sense of place. When understood as a community bound together by a set of values and its physical environment, the new neighborhood becomes an example of how education can shape a child's notion of who they are and what their place in the world might be. The value of a global perspective, so central to a 21st-century education, is deepened when children have a meaningful connection to their home and host culture.

Scott notes: "Our theme this year is Ku'u Home, My Home. Those students that have come through Punahou from kindergarten through fifth grade have a deeper perspective about this place that they pass on to the new students who enter between sixth and ninth grade, when each class doubles in size. These are the students that can teach the community about the place we call Punahou.

"When we talk about creating the conditions for children to reach their full potential, it's not just athletic potential or intellectual potential. There's an emotional threshold that they are able to experience here that connects them to Punahou and to each other. After graduation they have the responsibility to go out and recreate it in the world. That is what makes an experience at Punahou distinctive."

"This can be understood as a systems challenge and a systems opportunity. Because of the questions this project has helped us explore, grades 2 – 5 play a central role in the integration of the School." – President Jim Scott '70

The Whole School

Scott emphasizes that these themes apply not only to grades 2 – 5, but to the entire school. As part of the Campus Master Plan's vision, this project is an expression of Punahou's efforts to create an integrated learning journey for its students from kindergarten through grade 12.

An artistic interpretation of one of the future paths surrounding Ka Punahou, the spiritual and geographical center of campus.

The Academy has also been reimagining its learning commons with plans to reconnect Cooke Library to the campus core. Other projects include centralizing the School's music program and global languages program, and linking all parts of campus more meaningfully to Ka Punahou.

"This can be understood as a systems challenge and a systems opportunity," says Scott, reflecting on the School's gradual movement toward a unified whole, centered symbolically and physically at the New Spring. "Because of the questions this project has helped us explore, grades 2 – 5 play a central role in the integration of the School." After a thoughtful pause, he adds: "What a great time to be here."

2 – 5 Design Principles

The Learner

  • Recognize the diversity and needs of individual students
  • Reflect the neurological dynamics of learning
  • Recognize the role of play and the value of "failing forward"
  • Interact and embrace the child in the context of a system: family, school and community

The Learning Experience

  • Inquiry-based and interdisciplinary by design
  • Embeds Hawaiian culture and values
  • Promotes a global perspective
  • Advances 21st-century skills
  • Utilizes instructional technology
  • Deliberately sequenced progression
  • Reflects the value of service
  • Guided by experienced, insightful teachers

The Learning Environment

  • Cultivates collaborative interactions between teachers, students and classes
  • Accommodates and encourages collaborative, interactive, project-based learning
  • Provides quiet spaces for small and large group work
  • Brings the outdoors in, and invites those indoors out
  • Embraces sustainable design and embodies local culture

Planning for the Future

Punahou's Campus Master Plan was developed with the guidance of the planning firm Belt Collins and endorsed by the Board of Trustees in 2013. It outlines a comprehensive vision for the School's development projects over the next decade. One of its defining characteristics is a set of guiding principles that consider the 76-acre campus in its entirety. These principles include a commitment to expand green and open space in the campus core; a reaffirmation of Ka Punahou as the School's historic, geographical and spiritual center; building to the highest levels of sustainable design; and making a large school feel intimate and nurturing.

"Punahou's campus is an incredible gift and along with it comes a tremendous sense of stewardship and obligation to both past and future generations," notes Belt Collins Senior Project Manager/Senior Planner Gene Yong. "That's quite a perspective to have and it gives a lot of weight to what we were trying to plan for. You're not just planning for 15 or 20 years ahead, but for future generations."

Although it seems counterintuitive at a time when most schools are adding buildings, Punahou's decision to expand its open space stems from a commitment to preserve one of the School's – and Hawai'i's – most valuable resources. While this has meant making difficult decisions, including the removal of iconic buildings like the Winne Units and Castle Hall, they are guided by the School's mission to provide the most effective learning environments for children in the 21st century.

David Carey, chairman of the Punahou Trustees Buildings and Grounds Committee, has been a staunch proponent of this approach: "In terms of strategic advantage, if you think about what Punahou can do that many other schools can't – we can provide a campus environment with green space and open space where students can experience what makes Hawai'i special."

"I think it was universally felt among our planning team that many of the most distinctive places on Punahou's campus are its outdoor spaces," affirms Yong. "Whether it's the Academy quad, the Lily Pond, Barwick Playground, Rocky Hill or Alexander Field, there are these incredibly beautiful vignettes that allow the campus to resonate in one's memory. We wanted to capture and celebrate that, and to essentially flip the paradigm in which buildings often determine what becomes of the open space."

Commitment to Sustainability

Global values like sustainability and stewardship can be brought to life in learning environments. After achieving Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification for the Omidyar K – 1 Neighborhood, the School's aspiration for the new neighborhood – both in its buildings and its outdoor environment – is that they become teaching tools where the value of taking responsibility for the earth is made visible to students in their everyday surroundings. The ecological features of the new neighborhood include:


  • Net zero energy expenditure
  • Predominant use of natural lighting, ventilation and solar energy
  • Use of recycled building materials from the Winne Units
  • Creating opportunities for "buildings that teach" by making engineering systems and sustainability features visible and interactive for students and teachers


  • Roof catchment systems to collect rainwater for irrigation
  • Bioswales for rainwater absorption
  • Selection of native and place-appropriate plants that require minimal irrigation
  • Creation of a variety of natural environments for meaningful outdoor education
  • Circulation of spring water from Ka Punahou throughout the neighborhood as a physical and metaphorical teaching tool inspired by the ahupua'a concept

Be a Part of the Junior School's Renewal

Fundraising for the new 2 – 5 neighborhood is well underway, with $22.2 million of an estimated $75 million in resources to date. Work is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2015, with the goal of opening the first portion of the facilities in fall of 2016.