Over the past few months I have been asking myself an important question. Are we building schools that are really good for children or are we building schools that we as adults like for whatever reason and then post-rationalize as being good for children?
If we don’t include the “boutique” schools that are developed from the ground up as student-centered schools, it is clear that there is actually a school “style” out there. Let’s face it, how hard is it to tell a school apart from any other building type? Not very difficult at all. One might almost conjecture that architects have an unspoken need to make their building “look like a school” for fear that it may be mistaken for something else. But let’s look at that a bit more. A building that looks like a school may actually be saying a lot of things that go beyond its architecture. It may also be negatively defining what a school is, such as:
1. It is where students go to remain locked up (for all practical purposes) for an entire school day.
2. Its institutional bearing makes it a not-so-welcome place for the community and that is as it should be.
3. It clearly represents a certain power structure within the organization itself. That means it is a place where a few adults must supervise many times their number of students–a place which starts with a basic belief: students are not capable of being responsible and must therefore be closely watched at all times – preferably in settings which get large numbers of them to do the same thing at the same time.
4. It is a place where distinctions between individual students and differences in aptitudes, interests and needs are dealt only with the broadest brush-strokes; a place where personalization means giving each student a report card and two meetings with a parent each year.
5. It is a place to keep students out of trouble in structured activities organized by adults. This is not only desirable, but a necessity. A sense of separateness is fostered among students in a highly competitive atmosphere where students are pitted against each other.
Underlying all the above assumptions is the belief that the disenfranchisement of students in a dehumanizing environment built for compliance, rather than personal development or growth, is actually “good” for them. This belief goes hand-in-hand with the oft-repeated phrase, “children need structure,” as if “structure” lies within the exclusive domain of a control-oriented system. The unspoken part of all this is the assumption that school is supposed to be boring, that having fun in school is just another way of saying that you are not learning anything.
Of course I’m making a point. No school is completely totalitarian nor completely progressive. There are good teachers and teachers that are not very good in both kinds of schools. At the same time, caring administrators can make a badly designed building feel like a welcoming place and a nicely designed building can be regulated to the point where it is a cold and clinical environment. But the basic thesis remains. There are school buildings that are simply places to put children, and then there are nurturing places where learning is at the center of everything.
This is hardly a revolutionary concept in architecture. No one would question that good hospital architecture is about creating effective places for healing or that good airport architecture is about getting people and planes to their destinations as efficiently as possible, while keeping the travelers happy as they wait or move from one part of the airport to the other. But what is taken for granted with almost any other building type is not so obvious with schools. If schools are about learning, shouldn’t school architecture also be about learning? And if school architecture is about learning, shouldn’t it foster certain pre-conditions for learning such as thermal, acoustic and physical comfort, good lighting and acoustics? Shouldn’t school architecture support various learning modalities, allow its users to constantly tailor and modify their space to meet changing needs? Shouldn’t it, most of all, be about what children need for their special developmental needs at various stages in their lives?
Earlier this year, after visiting several international schools in India, I came across The Gurukul, a school that was started by a parent, Asha Panickar, with one primary goal — to give children a place where they could “rediscover the joy of learning.” That is where she started, with an assumption that would be hard to contest in this Indian region — that there is little joy in a child’s learning process within school. And so she asked what kind of place could she create where children would actually enjoy learning in a stress-free environment and where would the adults and the students clearly work toward the same goal as partners and not as adversaries?
As I toured the school, I found myself checking off the various things that would make researchers proud — though Asha had relied on her instincts as a parent and someone who cared about education to create her school. Some of the things I found form a good list to contrast with the first one in this article. It is also valuable to look at this list and see how the hundreds of new and renovated schools coming on line each year in this country and around the world would compare if these were the criteria for success:
1. Most of the decisions about the school seemed to have been made with the learner in mind. That means, it seemed to be a place made for the children first and for the adults second. This included the scale of the facility, the decorations, the casual look and the simple furnishings.
2. Almost every child seemed happy, relaxed and eager to learn.
3. Teachers seemed to be truly interested and happy to be working with children.
4. The environment seemed more like a large home than any other school I had visited.
5. Most of the decorations around the school were made by students themselves (as opposed to the adult created posters with injunctions and inducements to be good students so common in schools everywhere.)
6. The learning was collaborative and activity-based (as opposed to the rote learning in the highly stressed, competitive environments of most schools I’ve seen.)
7. There were connections with nature through views and vistas from the building and ample outdoor areas for active learning and play.
8. The scale of the school was small, which research shows has major benefits for student performance and success.
9. There were small numbers of students in classrooms which allowed teachers to personalize each child’s education.
10. There was a non-institutional look and feel to the entire school which is exactly what students need, particularly during the early grades, as they transition from their home to school.
I had mixed feelings about Asha’s decision to move to another location into more permanent facilities. I wondered if she could replicate the homelike environment she already had — helped by the fact that her current school is actually located in a big house!
The school did need a permanent home and the move was inevitable. I suggested to Asha that she contact Suhasini Ayer, an architect I had worked with before and whose work I respected enormously (click here for information about the Auroville Kindergarten — 2003 DesignShare honor award-winner designed by Suhasini.)
The rest of the story is told in Suhasini Ayer’s words. Suhasini’s notations about her experience with this small school so closely mirror my own views that I thought it would be helpful to juxtapose her comments with my December column.
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March 14th, 2006