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Radically Rethinking Education
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Interview With Prakash Nair
DESIGNER/builder magazine

Prakash NairPrakash Nair was born, raised, and educated in India. He arrived in the United States in 1979, earned master’s degrees in urban design and urban planning, and is a licensed architect. From the outset he was interested in the effects architecture has beyond the boundaries of a given site and how it impacts communities. In 1982 he got a fellowship to come to New York City. Working in the mayor’s office, he ultimately became a director of the New York City School Construction Program. During the next ten years Nair supervised a budget of $10 billion and the construction of 100 new schools and the renovation of 500 existing ones. Then he stopped to reconsider the role of traditional school design within the context of education, and he has devoted his career to redefining school design ever since. Today Nair is considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on school planning and design. He considers himself an agent for positive change in education and has taken his message of innovation to communities in nineteen states and ten countries on four continents.

DESIGNER/builder: What did you learn from your experience working for New York City?

PRAKASH NAIR: I learned all the things not to do, and it left me wondering how much benefit all the construction added to what the students experienced. So I started looking at some statistics, like attendance, vandalism, the dropout rate, and test scores. What I found very interesting was that there was no correlation between the schools that New York City was building and the performance of the students or educational benefits that these schools were supposed to be yielding.

Surely we should be able to measure outcomes in terms of educational advantages, not just in terms of how many buildings get built and how many kids are put into so-called new classrooms In other words, the schools were serving their purpose insofar as they were good places for students physically — they were comfortable, air-conditioned, and all that — but they did not seem to provide any social, community, or educational benefit. That to me was very strange considering that all educational expense ultimately should go toward improving education.

D/b: How did that affect your thinking?

PN: I started moving away from architecture to studying education and reading up on what the educational researchers were saying. I found that, for the most part, they have agreed that going forward into the twenty-first century we need a different kind of educational system. We need one that doesn’t create a standard for what every student should learn, but rather tailors education for each student since no two students ultimately will go on to do the same thing in life. We need to figure out a way to give a certain basic grounding, but beyond that, to give every student a personalized education. There are various terms for it, one of which is “student-centered learning.” That seems strange when you think about it, because all learning should be student-centered. But the system traditionally has been a teacher-centered system. That means it’s a bunch of students who go to school to watch adults work. The students are basically passive, and learning has been converted from an active enterprise to a passive one.

D/b: What does the research suggest be done?

PN: It shows that for learning to be effective, the students need to become the active members of the community and the teachers need to become facilitators and step back and allow learning to take place in a spontaneous, somewhat uncontrolled, and unpredictable way. That’s what learning really is. But if you look at most of the schools we are building, they are the exact opposite. They are very controlled, very predictable environments. School buildings don’t allow students to have any opportunity to do anything beyond what would be traditionally found in a teacher-centered program. So I asked myself, how could you make school buildings reflect the latest established research in the world of education? And I got interested in an alternative way to build schools.

D/b: How have you managed to put these ideas to work?

PN: I started getting some consulting work, and I asked my clients how they would like to see education conducted before they talked about what the school building should look like. So I changed the dialogue from building design to learning, to the demands placed on our children, to how quickly they are going to have to adapt to a fast-changing world, to the kinds of skills they are going to need, to how different those skills are from what we learned when we were in school, and to how space design today will have to be very, very different. The schools that came out of that process actually looked quite different from the schools that would normally come out of people’s perception of what a school building is supposed to look like.

Unlike most architecture, schools are one building type that we’re all familiar with because we’ve all been to school. So we have this mental image of what a school building is supposed to look like. I wanted to get people beyond that mental image and open their eyes to what a school could be as opposed to what it has always been. I was lucky to work on a project in Tasmania that married the latest thinking about how education should be conducted to how school buildings can support that.

D/b: Tell us about that project.

PN: Tasmania has always been a stepchild of Australia. It’s an island well removed from the mainland, and for many years it has never had enough of its own economic base to be self-sustaining. So it has had an identity crisis that makes it feel inferior. The premier of Tasmania, who is like one of our state governors, wanted to change that whole perception. It’s an absolutely gorgeous landscape with lots of natural resources, fishing, and waterfront activities. So he set out to build on its strengths, encourage economic development, and change that negative image.

I got involved after Reese Community High School in the blue-collar town of Devenport burned down. It was an incredibly traumatic experience for the community, and they wanted the state to rebuild the school pretty much in the form that it had been before. So the minister of education came down the next day and promised to restore the school and give them back whatever they had lost, so to speak. Devenport is a very poor community that at one time had an unemployment rate as high as 80 percent. But Australia has a very good social system; if people are in economic difficulty they still get to keep their houses, and the community doesn’t seem devastated like some of the communities here. It was still very active, the people wanted to do the right thing, but they didn’t know what the right thing was. The state department of education, aware that they didn’t really want to rebuild the kind of school that had burned down, had seen some of my writings on the Internet and asked if I could come there to help the community visualize what the future might be like — to grasp what people’s thinking was beyond what they were comfortable with. I said that we needed to meet with the whole community – the students, the parents, and local businesspeople, anybody who was a school stakeholder — and bring them in and make them part of the process of developing the school.

D/b: What was their reaction to you as an outsider?

PN: Of course there was a lot of suspicion at first. But during the course of the meetings I talked to the parents and asked them what the purpose of education was and why they sent their children to school every day. And I said look, I’m asking you a question that most parents never get asked, because most parents take for granted that they have to get up in the morning and send their children off to school. Some adults have figured out what is good for their kids, but they have never had a chance to actually ask themselves, “Hey, is this a good thing?” I mean, is it even a good idea to have something called school? So I said you guys have this incredible opportunity to think deeply about schools in a way that other communities would never be given the chance. I told them the state education department people, who were sitting in the back of this room, have agreed to basically give you the school that will benefit your kids, something other communities may never get. And when we opened up the dialogue we were able to identify a whole bunch of things that the community really felt the school should do, which of course the old school did not do. And once we identified that, it was easy to then design a school building around those ideas.

D/b: What did they tell you they wanted?

PN: They wanted students to be much more self-sufficient. They wanted them to be independent thinkers. They wanted them to be entrepreneurial. They wanted them to have social skills which school tended not to develop. They wanted them to have emotional skills. They wanted them to develop mind, body, and spirit, as opposed to just academic things. They wanted them to be happy and fulfilled. They wanted students to be able to go and get jobs after school, or go on to college, whatever they chose. They wanted students to be technology-literate. They wanted students to be able to have communication beyond Tasmania because they felt Tasmania was a very closed sort of a place. They wanted global connections beyond the island. And they wanted things like internships in tourism and other local industries to reflect the way students were being prepared for jobs they might eventually take. They believed that education should be based not on rote learning and not just on subjects like history, math, science, and social studies, but rather it should be interdisciplinary and integrated. It should also include aspects of music, art, and community service. Ideally as much of it as possible should be delivered in the form of meaningful, real-world projects. And in the course of working on the projects they would gain the skills they needed in those particular areas as opposed to learning the subjects and somehow hoping to apply it somewhere in the future.

D/b: And what about collaboration as opposed to individual learning? Did they talk at all about that?

PN: Exactly. The school eventually adopted that as their philosophy. Basically they moved away from a focus on individual achievement in terms of competition and toward how to develop into whole citizens, which would require them to be much more collaborative citizens. In other words, they wanted their children to become global citizens with a strong sense of identity about who they are and to have the kinds of backgrounds that would give them the ability to adapt to whatever the future would bring. Everybody recognized that it’s like what Wayne Gretzky said about playing hockey: you need to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been (because once you get to where the puck has been it isn’’t there anymore). We know for a fact that the majority of the jobs that our kids are going to take have not even been invented yet. It’s really hard to prepare them for the careers they will encounter when the world they will be inheriting hasn’t even defined those careers yet. So rather than give them fixed skills in specific areas, the idea was to train them to be adaptable, to be quick learners, and to be able to take generalized skills and apply them to any context.

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March 8th, 2006

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