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"Creating a 2020 Vision for School Design"

“Creating a 2020 Vision for School Design”

“The kindergartners that start in the fall of 2007 will graduate in the spring of 2020. As architects of schools, you need to have a 2020 Vision. Your client’s and children’s futures depend upon it.”

by Karl Fisch



Like many others who spend time reading various education-oriented blogs, we ran into a most amazing video presentation called “2020 Vision” that was put together by a Colorado (US) based educator named Karl Fisch that truly put into fresh new perspective how kids’/students’ lives are radically transforming before our eyes. His video (and 2 others) were put together to help his own teaching colleagues ‘get it’ when it comes to embracing new technologies to help empower their students for the students’ own futures (not just our pasts). And after only a few months, the videos suddenly went globa in a very word-of-mouth viral manner, and they have continued to gain notoriety in all corners of the blogosphere. So we thought we’d ask Karl if he’d write an open-letter to the school design community based on the work he’s done to help his own school community embrace the emerging future of learning. We hope you’ll find the videos challenging and affirming all at once. (”2020 Vision is the 2nd video you’ll be able to play down below straight from this page).


Anticipate the future.

That’s something that the folks that work in schools - and the architects that design them - have to do every single day. In order to truly meet the needs of students, we really have to predict the future. My staff has spent the last year and a half trying to anticipate the future, trying to figure out what we need to do differently to adequately prepare our students to be successful in the 21st century. A century that we feel is going to require different skills, different abilities, different habits of mind than the last century did.

How can we change the way we teach or, more importantly, the way students learn, for them to be happy, successful, and productive citizens of the 21st century?

As part of this process, I developed three presentations for my staff:

The first two were obviously easier to create, but the third one - looking at the future - was tougher because we can’t predict the future - at least not yet. So how could I get my staff to prepare for it? It’s tough to be the one that’s supposed to have the vision and then tell folks that you really don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like. But I felt it was important for them to have some kind of plausible vision of the future to think about and discuss. Even if it turns out - as it surely will - to not be totally accurate. As long as I got the general trends right, it would make it much easier for my staff to anticipate what skills and abilities and habits of mind students would need in the future - and therefore we could make the necessary changes now to make that happen. As a result of our ongoing staff development, and helped along by the presentations, my staff is beginning to have a vision of the future. Right now it’s mostly a bunch of individual visions, but we are working together to create a collective vision for our school, our students and our community.

School architects face a similar dilemma.

You are tasked with creating buildings that will serve the needs of educators and students far into the future. But how do you do that when we are in a time of such rapid change? How can you possibly design a building that will meet future needs when those future needs could be so very different from today’s needs? Just like educators, you need a vision of the future. We can’t change the past - it’s already happened. We can’t even change the present - as the moment passes too quickly. The future is the only thing we can change. The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Shouldn’t we get started?

The future is a lot like the weather.

Everyone talks about the future but nobody does anything about it. Who can see the future? Nobody can (at least not yet). But what if it’s your job to see the future? What if you are supposed to be the one that has the vision?

Who needs to see the future?

Well, lots of people.

Weather forecasters, farmers, investment managers, CEO’s, politicians – you name it, just about everyone could benefit from some insights into what the future will bring. Weather forecasters would be pretty happy with getting the next three days worth of forecasts right all the time. Extend it out to ten days and they’d be ecstatic. If they could be fairly accurate on temperatures and precipitation for a region for the next year they could retire happy. Farmers match up pretty well with weather forecasters.

Likewise, investment managers and CEO’s have a little bit longer viewpoint, but not by much. Many investment managers focus on quarterly numbers, then building to a 1-year, 3-year and perhaps 5-year return on investment. CEO’s and their corporations also focus on those quarterly numbers and, if the CEO is lucky, he or she makes it to the end of any five year plan. Politicians – at least in the United States – rarely focus on anything longer than the next two to four years, knowing so much will change with every election that they don’t have to focus on anything longer than that.

But what about educators?

K-12 educators may have the toughest job of all.

When a child starts Kindergarten, the school system makes a commitment to educate them for the next thirteen years. Implicit in that commitment is that the student will be prepared to be successful in the world as it exists thirteen years from then. That they are prepared to enter college, the military, or the work force with the knowledge and skills that are deemed necessary at that point in time – thirteen years in the future. As if that isn’t daunting enough, traditional wisdom holds that those thirteen years of education should really prepare students for the rest of their lives, at least until they retire, so sixty plus years out from when they start kindergarten.

This has never been easy, but when the world was changing at a relatively sedate, linear pace, schools could change slowly and still be successful. In a time of rapid change like today, in exponential times, it is next to impossible. When the predicted top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t even exist in 2004 (former Secretary of Education Richard Riley); when a $1,000 computer will exceed the computation capabilities of the human brain in 2023 (Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near - and in this article ); when a $1,000 computer will exceed the computation capabilities of the entire human race by 2049 (Kurzweil again) – what are educators to do?

So what do we do?

What can teachers and administrators, school board members and taxpayers, school architects and students - do? Nobody can accurately predict the future in a time of such rapid change. Educators instead just focus on making their “quarterly numbers,” getting their students through the next unit or the end of the semester, trying to do well on mandated tests, and generally doing their best and hoping for the best for their students. School architects just focus on the bottom line, on submitting the lowest bid that meets the minimum specs, and then trying to come in on time and on budget - hoping that the price of steel doesn’t go up too much in the interim.

But in a time of rapid change, that’s not going to cut it.

We need to have vision, even if it isn’t one hundred percent accurate. It doesn’t need to be, as the future in a time of rapid change is likely to be much stranger than most predictions. The vision doesn’t even have to get most things right, just enough of the general trends so that educators can start moving – both themselves and their students – in the right directions. Because this isn’t something that can be addressed by incremental improvements. You can’t leap a 20-foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps. We don’t need incremental improvements, but revolutionary ones (Kathy Sierra, for one, talks about this here and here ).

That was the impetus behind writing one version of the future.

To give educators – and everyone concerned about education – one possible vision of education in the near future. Maybe by having one possible vision of the future we can get beyond our natural resistance to change.

I ask teachers, “Are you ever going to be 18 again? Are your students ever going to be your age? Should we be preparing students for the world as it was when we were 18, or for the world as it will be when they are our age?” I would think school architects would ask their clients some questions as well (in addition to those). Maybe along the lines of, “What are your core values? What are the three habits of mind you most want your students to leave your school with? Do your current school designs support those values and habits of mind? How could a new school design not only support those values and habits of mind, but actually foster them?”

Instead of throwing up our hands and saying, “Everything’s changing so fast. How can we possibly know what’s going to happen so why even bother,” we get to work envisioning what our students are most likely to need to be successful in the 21st century – and then preparing them accordingly. Because who can see into the future? Teachers can, every time they walk into their classrooms and look into the eyes of their students. But if their classrooms are built for the past, preparing our children for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, then the future looks pretty bleak.

School architects – at least the really good ones - have a very tough job.

They are tasked with building schools that are supposed to serve the needs of students forty to sixty years into the future. For architects that think schools are just buildings - just walls and floors, ceilings and doors - that’s pretty easy. But the problem with school as building, with a lowest-bid mentality, is how do you put a price on inspiration? How do you measure the building’s impact on the learning, the hopes and dreams of the tens of thousands of students that will read what’s on those walls, walk on those floors, stare at those ceilings, and pass through those doors? Do you simply want to shelter, or do you want to inspire, the students of the future?

Albert Einstein said that imagination was more important than knowledge.

He didn’t mean knowledge wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t sufficient. Schools built today must be designed to not only meet the needs of today’s students, but of multiple future generations of students that will live and learn in a constantly and rapidly changing world. We need to build schools that learn, schools that are flexible enough to adapt to meet the future needs of teachers and students. We need to harness our imaginations now in order to build schools that can inspire future imaginations.

School architects need the vision to design not just buildings, but learning spaces.

Professional learning environments where teachers and students can learn together as they boldly go into the future. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, although I have some ideas, but I do know that architects need to have a vision of the school building of the future that doesn’t try to meet the needs of the past.

Just like educators, school architects don’t have to get the vision exactly right, but they do need to have one.

We no longer live in an industrial age, so why do we have industrial age classrooms? Is it necessary (or appropriate) to have thirty-six individual desks in neat rows in a room with four walls and a door that we close to keep the rest of the world out? Do we need an assembly line mentality, where a bell rings and widgets (students) move to the next spot on the line? Do we need a system where all the raw materials (students) must be dealt with in the same way or they are tossed off the line as defective (learning disabled)?

Or do we need an environment where students are both respected and nurtured, where they are treated as professional learners, where they are seen as individuals that can contribute to the common good? Where they are viewed not just as passive consumers of information, but as active producers, who add meaning and value to the information. An environment where students are encouraged to interact, not only with others in their classroom, but with others in their community - and in communities around the world. An environment that views students as the ultimate “knowledge workers.” Which environment would you like to learn in?

The kindergartners that start in the fall of 2007 will graduate in the spring of 2020. As architects of schools, you need to have a 2020 Vision. Your client’s and children’s futures depend upon it.



Karl Fisch has been a teacher for eighteen years. He has taught middle and high school math and is currently Director of Technology at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. He is the project leader of Arapahoe’s Curriculum Innovation Team, leading the staff development efforts for 21 st Century Learners, a group of teachers exploring constructivism and 21st century learning skills.

He invites you to join the conversation at his blog, The Fischbowl.


You can reach Karl Fisch by email at

January 5th, 2007

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