The Third Teacher: Learning Through the Environment

In the 1940s, Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi developed the Reggio Emilia Approach, a style of preschool and primary school education in which young students are encouraged to initiate self-guided explorations of both their physical environment and their immediate social community. Unlike traditional educational practices where there is a distinct student-teacher hierarchy, the Reggio Emilia Approach prescribes that the teacher is not a dictator, rather s/he is a co-learner and collaborator with the students. Malaguzzi states, “There are three teachers of children: adults, other children, and their physical environment,” the latter of which is subsequently referred to as the Third Teacher. As I reflect on my own early education which was traditional and top down, it is clear that the physical environment was not a valued source of teaching or considered as an influential medium. As architects, it is essential to consider the ways in which our work not only shapes the physical environment, but also – perhaps inadvertently – functions as the Third Teacher.

I recently spoke to architect Hristo Harlov, co-founder of the Bulgarian-based TheThirdTeacher project, an interdisciplinary architecture and educational consulting organization that works to create inspiring and stimulating physical environments in school systems.

TheThirdTeacher project – created by Harlov along with Radosveta Kirova, Radomir Dankov, and Cvetelin Radev – ran for the duration of seven months at Vassil Drumev High School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. During this time, TheThirdTeacher designers directly engaged students in the design process to effectively inform the redesign of the school’s architectural space. Upon reconstruction, the designers envisioned a school that would function as a dynamic working mechanism, aiding in the development of both its immediate occupants and the surrounding community. Initially the designers expected to resolve the school’s challenges with a clear-cut architectural renovation, however, upon conducting an intensive student collaboration with surveys and participatory activities, the designers identified the need for much more substantial restructuring.

During the seven-month collaboration the design team conducted a school-wide survey that asked students to re-imagine the school’s physical space. A unanimous 96% of students expressed the desire for major improvements. They also proposed some amazing ideas. The results were presented to the school’s management and the larger community in Vassil Drumev.

The survey asked students, simply, “What is missing in your school?” The most common reply was striking: toilet paper and hot water. Although these two products have no direct architectural value, the attitude towards their consumption does; the toilet paper was revoked as contraband by the school’s management because the students used it for play rather than as a necessity. The management’s response was to remove the item rather than educate and advocate for more appropriate use.

The survey also revealed that 71% of students expressed a desire to stay at the school after hours. They wanted the school to become a new social and cultural center. The management’s impulse was to reject this need based on a lack of existing facilities. The designers suggested various ways that the school’s existing facilities could be repurposed beyond it primary 9am to 3pm function. The conflicting opinions between the school’s students and management warranted a negotiation process that involved all views on the issue, which the designers worked to facilitate.

Following the collection and presentation of data, the designers introduced students to the basic principles of architecture. Two age group of students across various classes were asked to explore how their classroom and common spaces could be reconstructed to better support their learning.

Images © TheThirdTeacher

This engaged activity sought to influence and improve the student attitude toward their educational environment, and perhaps toward each other. Echoing the Reggio Emilia Approach, the designers asserted the idea that the students were agents of creative change. The designers quickly discovered that they didn’t need to explain the concept of “active use” to the students at all; they naturally shape their own spaces, for example, in the schoolyard. TheThirdTeacher further provided a forum for students to reorganize, repaint, and repair their school. In the initial survey, 66% of students wanted to actively engage in the design process and 88% wanted to take part in the construction process.

Images © TheThirdTeacher

TheThirdTeacher also aimed to equip the school for new programming, used by both the students and the community at large. Vassil Drumev High School was built in 1971, within an entirely different pedagogical and technological framework. The current students decided that the school now required an open plan that was better suited to a more progressive, 21st-Century style of education. Students also indicated that they didn’t want to occupy a space that was uniform throughout the school’s entire grounds. Each individual requires different boundaries and unique rules. The students wanted their learning spaces to feel specific and personalized.

Images © TheThirdTeacher

“More than the physical space, the environment includes the way time is structured and the roles we are expected to play. It conditions how we feel, think, and behave; and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives,” explains designer and education theorist Jim Greenman. In their collaboration with Vassil Drumev High School students, TheThirdTeacher team sought to recast the role of the architect as an organizer, a facilitator, a provocateur, rather than the omnipotent authority figure. The architect understands the role of the environment as a teacher and acts as a social worker. The architect, therefore firstly creates a building and thereafter is the protagonist in constructing knowledge.

Prior to the final reorganization and reconstruction of the school, TheThirdTeacher project was cancelled by the school administration. TheThirdTeacher project however is still running  and the team is currently working on a new project  in another school including the reconstruction of common space. Should you like to get in touch with Hiristo directly you are welcome to contact him via email:


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