But Are They Learning?
Should They Gatto and Leave or Meier and Stay?
Beyond the economic arguments there are other compelling reasons why schools, and by extension, school facilities, must change. Foremost among them is research in the field of education that backs the voices of a strong, respected and vocal community arguing for the personalization of learning in our nation's schools. Howard Gardner, Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn and John Gatto are only a few of the dozens of educators around the country calling for a new educational manifesto. Some of them like Gatto are calling on people to boycott schools altogether (Gatto, 1991) while others like Meier see hope for positively reforming the system. In fact, Deborah Meier believes that abandoning America's public schools may seriously hurt the foundations of this country's democratic principles (Meier, 1995).
Can Learning Be Mass-Produced?
Whatever their particular leanings may be, of one thing the reformists are certain; learning is a highly individual thing and cannot be mass-produced. Each learner needs a tailored program and children need to have active roles in their learning. Motivation comes from within each child and is not some externally applied force. The role of adults is to provide a caring and supportive presence. Measures of performance such as test scores are far less important than measures of qualitative gains such as a child's improved social skills and emotional well being. Ideas are good and children need to be exposed to as many of them as possible but Murray Coppen, an ex-teacher and now policy analyst in the area of school property in New Zealand, talks about how most ideas are "inert" to a child unless he or she gets to try it out in some fashion (Coppen, 2002). That does not mean passive transference of data from one form to another - as is the case when a child copies things from the Internet to place it onto her project board. True engagement comes when children are asked to implement the ideas in some fashion. That means often having opportunities to build things with their own hands, trying out a computer simulation or applying a theory to create something completely new.
How Does Education Research Impact School Facility Design?
Research is still sparse when it comes to evaluating the benefits of non-traditional learning spaces on learning outcomes. However, since there is solid evidence that progressive methods of education do work when properly implemented, it makes sense that school facility design should follow suit and support the new teaching and learning modalities. Listed below are some ways in which learner centered schools can be configured. This is by no means an exhaustive "menu" of choices, nor a blueprint for a new kind of "prototype". A good school design will probably incorporate these and other modern concepts. However, a successful school is much more than an innovative building; its creation requires the active participation of the user community and other interested stakeholders.
Learning Studios Instead of Traditional Classrooms. Classrooms will give way to multipurpose "learning studios," places where different children could be engaged on different tasks in various activity zones. Daylighting will be abundant, fixed furniture will be eliminated, and there will be adequate room for both individual space and group gatherings.
Kivas, Atriums, and "Learning Streets" Replace
Corridors. Beyond the learning studio, new learning environments will have fewer corridors where students run past one another and more open areas-both within and outside the building-where social interaction is encouraged. A number of schools that have put these ideas into practice are showcased in the Designshare and School Construction News-sponsored "Awards 2000" and "Awards 2001" programs.
Project Rooms for Project-Based Learning. These will be high-ceilinged areas with ample power, gas, worktables, and specialized equipment. They are places where students can work on long term projects-usually building something. Such rooms are distinguished from the traditional science labs and art rooms by the fact that they are not specialty oriented. That means one student could be building an architectural model next to another painting a large canvas, next to a student building a robot. As with the world outside school, projects won't start and end with bells, and students will work on them at their own pace.
From Programmed Rooms to Resource Areas. The school library or media center, cafeteria, and fitness center will become resource areas that students will be able to use as they see fit-not on some predetermined schedule.
Multiage Groupings. As a reflection of the real world, most student groups will be based on aptitudes and interests and represent a range of ages. As Daniel Pink puts the question: "When was the last time you spent all day in a room filled exclusively with people almost exactly your own age?"
Learning Outside School. Older students will spend a significant part of their time-perhaps as many as two or three days a week-outside the school building, involved in community service and school-to-work programs and all students will share the wealth of the community's many learning resources like libraries, parks and museums. This means that buildings may not need to accommodate as many students as before and could be built to a smaller scale.
Parent and Community Use. Areas will be designed with all the amenities needed for school-hours use by parents and volunteers and after-school use by all community residents
Teacher Workrooms. Places will be provided for teacher research, collaborative work and student meetings that treat teachers like the professionals they are
A Place to Think. Students will have places where they can enjoy a moment of solitude, where they will be allowed both the time and the space to think or not think. Almost every creative endeavor is achieved at least in part through moments of solitude. Given the frenetic pace of modern daily life, the need for places that nourish the spirit and provide those moments has never been greater.
Technology as Liberator. With every student having ubiquitous access to wireless laptops and other digital communication devices, and with the Internet becoming available to students when and where they need it, there will be less reason for students to be situated in a classroom to learn. Wireless will also permit equipment previously fixed in place like data projectors, printers, and scanners to move freely around the school. The school day will not end when students leave the building. Learning will continue at home, as students and teachers talk to one another via email, or perhaps audio and video chat sessions. With more online course offerings, many classes will have no connection with the school building at all. "Classmates" will not be limited to those who share the same space, but will include those who share the same interests-in town, in another town, or even in another country.
Living, Not Static Architecture. The building itself will be designed as a "living" space for maximum flexibility and change so that the mix of learning areas - individual, team, small group and large group can be adjusted easily as needs vary.
Peel Education and TAFE Campus,
Every one of these trends has already manifested itself in schools and a few schools have even been designed from the ground up as "new paradigm" schools as I refer to them.
In addition to the examples cited earlier, one good example is the Peel
Education and TAFE campus in Mandurah, Western Australia. The
school designed by Spowers Architects features “broadly dispersed Flexible
Learning Areas” and “a semi indoor/outdoor ‘Learning Street’ to
encourage informal opportunities for interactions, learning and community
awards – 2001)
How Big a Part Do School Facilities Play in The Education Reform Puzzle?
School buildings are only a piece of the education reform puzzle but they may be a more important piece than we have understood in the past. As with my argument to the Superintendent of the school district in Florida, what better time to take stock of where you are and where you want to go than just before you invest all that money? My advice to all organizations and governments contemplating a new school is to step back, throw away all your own pre-conceived notions about what school is or should be and take a fresh look at the research about how children (and adults) learn. Then, bring all stakeholders into the process and challenge them to figure out what needs to be done to realize a vision for the future.
It will quickly become apparent that for a school to be truly successful, a host of key partners will be needed. They include students, parents and school staff, institutions of higher learning, local government officials, political, community and spiritual leaders, global partners, corporate entities and the state and federal governments.
It is not so much that facilities can make or break a good school but that they provide an important catalyst to go back to the proverbial drawing board. It's a time to reexamine and challenge all our assumptions so that what springs forth is not just bricks and mortar arranged in a new way, but a whole new way to nurture learning.
Writer's Background Information
Prakash Nair is an international school planning consultant who is widely recognized for his work in the areas of innovative school facilities and educational technology. He is the Director of Educational Facilities Planning for Vitetta and President of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century. Before that, Prakash served as the Director of Operations for a multi-billion dollar school construction program for New York City. His many articles on designing school facilities that will endure well into the 21st century have been internationally published in print and on the Internet and he was interviewed on radio and television by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Prakash has conducted numerous seminars and workshops at the invitation of professional organizations and governments in 14 states and six countries on four continents including the Netherlands and Australia. Prakash can be reached at: Prakash@Designshare.com
Abramson, Paul. 2001 Construction Report. School Planning and Management, 2001.
Bingler, Steven and Lackney Jeffrey. The School Construction News and Designshare Awards 2001. Online publication.
Coppen, Murray. New Directions for Tomorrow's Schools, A View From New Zealand. http://designshare.com. Online publication. January 2002
Darling-Hammond, Linda. The Right To Learn - A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997.
Gatto, John Taylor. The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher. Whole Earth Review. Fall 1991.
Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve - Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards". Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
Levine, Eliot. One Kid at a Time, Big Lessons From a Small School. Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2002.
McKenzie, Jamie. The New School Thing. From Now On - The Education Technology Journal. April 2000.
Meier, Deborah. The Power of Their Ideas - Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem. Beacon Press, 1995.
Pink, Daniel H. School's Out, Get Ready for the New Age of Individualized Education. Reason, October 2001.
Ruenzel, David. The World According to Gatto. Teacher Magazine. March 2001.
Tapaninen, Reino. Heinavaara School, A Case Study. Paper presented at American Institute of Architects Conference in Amsterdam, 2000.
Wood, George H. A Time to Learn. Plume, 1999.
© Prakash Nair & Design Share, Inc., 2002
| April 2002