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Learning in a sterile classroom environment can only get you so far. Learning by doing, on the other hand, can take education to a whole new level.

In a previous life, before the curious path that brought me to Bruce Mau Design, I was taught the ultimate lesson about learning amid the specimen collections of the Royal Ontario Museum. After intense preparation for the final exam of a graduate course in comparative mammalogy — with every conceivable anatomical and taxonomic detail about every member of the entire living and extinct Order Mammalia crammed into my nerdish brain — the professor asked just one question: “If you had unlimited resources and no restrictions, how would you teach this course?”

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Figuring that the best possible way to learn about animal life was to utilize the extraordinary, exhaustive, and very dead inventory of more than 250,000 animals in the museum’s collections, I wisely constructed an elaborate program of specimen study and research. I got a C+.

And that was a gift, given what the professor envisioned as the ideal way to study mammals. His curriculum was, “Go out and try to save one.”

The professor turned 75 during that term. He had spent his life studying Central American bats, watching and documenting them as their numbers grew smaller and their habitats disappeared. He was losing and had just learned why. “I’ve always believed that creating knowledge was the reason for all this,” he said, waving his hand around the specimen collections. “Soon I’ll be dead, and I’ve added only paper to the world. I understand bats, but I know nothing of use about the world that’s destroying them.”

Twenty years or so spent in hermetic learning environments had completely severed his process of learning from the impulse to act. My fellow classmates were as stunned and dismayed as I was. We all bombed the course but learned a great lesson: Doing is the best form of learning.

So, how would I design a classroom that works? I would start by basing it on these principles.

Learn by doing things with real outcomes. If there isn’t anything at stake beyond your self-esteem, you’re unlikely to learn anything surprising.

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Make every project you tackle an opportunity to learn something new. This accomplishes two things: First, your clients and collaborators will appreciate your enthusiasm, and second, you’ll get better and better at what you do.

Learn when to ask for help. Our capacity to understand has actual consequences. It’s crucial to be aware of your own intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Test your limits for yourself. If you don’t, you can be sure that someone else eventually will.

Give back. The world you learn from is a limited resource. Education is a cycle. What you know is the substance of other people’s growth.

Have fun. Earning a living is a lot more fun when learning is a part of it. As we say in the studio, “We’d rather be happy amateurs than sad professionals.”

Kevin Sugden (sugden@brucemaudesign.com) is a senior design associate at Bruce Mau Design.