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Should a Classroom Have Four Walls?

By François Jarraud, Le Cafe Pedagogique

What principles should we use to build the schools of the future? What should dictate these spaces? The materials they are made of, or something more? In Paris on Wednesday, December 14, 2010, Compass Group and Cap Digital invited the architect Randall Fielding of Fielding Nair International, which builds schools in 32 countries, to present his innovative ideas about the schools of tomorrow.

Math Lounge, International School of Brussels, Belgium

Can you imagine a school without endless corridors? That’s what you notice first in schools created by Randall and the FNI team. Instead of hallways, there are communal spaces, small study pods, cafes, meeting places and various and varied work areas. Have you been in schools that are actually comfortable? In an FNI facility, library areas are furnished with deep sofas and dining areas are cozy places you can chat with friends. Where traditional school architecture would place hundreds of meters of corridors, Randall Fielding takes this space and gives life-enhancing experiences to the student groups that inhabit them.

Should a classroom have four walls? Randall Fielding thinks we should consider other options. In the rooms he designs for science courses, workshops actually, he includes a large outdoor terrace for science experiments. And ingeniously, each classroom is appended with a small over-hanging space, where students can gather for quiet study.

Flexible Learning Studios, Scotch Oakburn College, Tasmania

In a 21st century school, the larger student community takes precedent over the smaller one in a traditional, isolated classroom. Flexible spaces means the group size can change to support multiple learning modalities. A student might create a project in a workshop for a fortnight, move on to study in a small group next, and then present in an amphitheater to a larger audience later that day. How does all this work? Many walls are mobile, creating an endless configuration of flexible spaces. By opening the wall of the class in an ordinary classroom, a teacher can get more space by annexing part of the common area. Often, FNI spaces have transparent walls, exposing the teaching within. Each teacher can now alter their space to suit the learning rather than adjusting their lessons to suit the space. “You can teach anywhere in an FNI school,” explained Randall. “No space is wasted.”

And what about security in such a school? Randall replies, using the example of the Cristo Rey high school in Minneapolis. Built in a disadvantaged neighborhood, the school provides security through a strong community connection. “In this school people are not isolated. They are not embedded in an indifferent crowd. They are part of a group that cares for them,” said Randall.

He cited this example: the changing configuration of school architecture tells the story of evolution in pedagogy. A century ago, the industrial model, with strict control of lighting, time management and class size dictated the student’s experience. And like the set-up of convents and prisons, there was an obsession with surveillance and obedience to the master instructors. Randall then contrasted this with the architecture of schools today. Rather than looking like a manufacturing plant, it mirrors the headquarters of a multinational corporation, which combines flexible spaces, nice places to relax, and study groups that form and reform to tackle real-world projects. Masters become facilitators, and students learn to produce a design in a team, the same way they’ll work after graduation.

Outdoor Learning Terrace, International School of Brussels, Belgium

Does this new model have a future in France? Here, in the immediate post-war era, we created elementary schools open to the outdoors and nature, but the model never caught on. Compared to the architecture of Randall Fielding, where everything is designed to benefit the students rather than the teachers, our school traditions are more conservative. But Randall and Fielding Nair International’s values and designs deserve to be debated. Should students learn to obey a leader and to comply with strict policy or to manage relationships with people and groups to function in a global society? Must they learn to learn independently? Is Randall Fielding’s school of tomorrow also our future? These are important questions to consider, for the future of our citizens.

Link to original article.

February 10th, 2011

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