Building Schools That Reflect Modern Education Priorities

In many parts of the world, educators tell everyone who will listen that they believe in reform, that the old ways of education will no longer work and that children need a different kind of education that develops the whole child for life in the Twenty First Century! And then, they basically build school infrastructure that looks just like the old or merely tweaks old structures gently around the edges. In such circumstances, is it really surprising if parents and students are left doubtful about the convictions behind these espoused changes in modern education?

There are exceptions – the Green School in Bali comes to mind – built entirely from bamboo and very consciously designed with the needs of the children and the environment first and foremost. I’m also aware of projects elsewhere in the world that have sought to bring significant input from educators themselves at the design phase so that schools are developed in ways that realistically support innovative and creative approaches to Twenty First Century learning.

I have had conversations with school owners and promoters who feared that involving educators in the early design phases would expose them to grossly extravagant, expensive and unreasonable expectations. Where I have been involved in projects where teachers were engaged i found there was an element of this at the beginning. Teachers came to the table with high expectations and some pretty lengthy wish lists. However, as they engaged in the process they came to understand more of the considerations at play and were more than able to adapt their initial dream wish lists to realistic prioritized needs. The end result was construction that had 100% commitment from the educators (those part of the process and their colleagues) and with all parties having a clear understanding about what was being done – and why.

There’s another issue that is helped when educators are included in the process of design and planning for new school premises or facilities, that I’ve come across quite a few times. When owners/ promoters and designers sit down to plan the design and creation of a school building there are many equations that go on, with due inputs from the financial advisers. Every decision to create a room or learning space is critical. Under the traditional school structure patterns a standard classroom can be considered a ‘revenue generating space’ (If class sizes are going to be 25 pupils, then that room is worth potentially 25 X the school annual fee in annual revenue). However, a room designated as labs (computer, science etc.) or a music room, drama room, Special Education Needs space, storage rooms etc. are basically ‘cost centres’ as no further children can be admitted in to the school because of the existence of that room.

When new premises are built they are not utilised to full capacity. Over time, educators eye the empty spaces (long term planned as revenue spaces) and come forward with all sorts of projects and ideas for ways to use them (as cost spaces). Then, as the facility fills up, educators start to suggest that it is reaching capacity long before the student numbers envisaged in the original plans. When administrators start to talk of turning these spaces back in to what they were originally intended to be educators can get disappointed and resistant. It helps if there were educators involved in the initial processes who can verify and confirm the original room allocation intentions. Compromise on this can undermine the original financial modelling for the school – the price for that would ultimately be paid by parents through fees or compromises of cost cutting elsewhere.

There is a major caveat. The educators who are brought in to the design and planning process need to be those with open minds and creativity, ready to bring the best of new innovative educational thinking to the table and with a desire to create learning spaces that are flexible and effective to be used for today’s classroom practices and learning approaches.

Needs from today’s learning spaces vary according to the age of pupils. However, I believe that bigger spaces with scope and flexibility to be divided in to smaller areas make most sense across all age ranges. Large open areas allow for dramatic engagement, activities that combine physical movement with learning, project based learning, role play etc.

There is also a need to acknowledge that the introverts among our students need ‘quiet time’ and small spaces where they can work with minimal noise and disturbance. These kinds of spaces are also invaluable for those children working to overcome challenges of distraction.

Promoters worry that such ideas would see far less students in larger spaces, undermining the financial efficacy of the schools. However, I believe that when schools break out from the traditional preconceptions, then we may see far more effective space utilisation. Currently, an enormous amount of built up area in schools is dedicated to corridors (often as much as 20%). This is necessary because of the way time is regimented so that either everyone is in rooms or everyone is out of rooms.

Next, especially in Secondary Schools there are lots of ‘single use’ spaces that spend large parts of the day out of use. In turn, when students vacate a classroom to go to a lab, a PE hall or some other outside activity, those classrooms are empty, wasted space. I have another longer blog post that’s half written right now that explores some even more radical ideas about how we might rethink the academic year. While I believe this carries many benefits, potentially one of the biggest would be to make far more effective use of expensive real estate and infrastructure.
(Watch out for that one coming soon.)

We won’t really be able to claim that we’re serious about modernising education until we reach a situation where most new schools and school buildings include innovative space use, allocation and design. It’s time to say farewell for good to the block shaped buildings with big corridors and rows of identical doors leading to identikit rooms. We must banish the rows of desks, the bells that mark out identical metered blocks of time where all the learners do prescribed things in rigid orders.

With this in mind, i applaud all those around the world who have the courage to do innovative things in school design. I share here a TED talk from about 4 years ago in which a really very modest and imaginative architect shares the thinking that lead to an amazing kindergarten in Japan. Worth watching for the spirit of ‘what’s possible’ and the responsiveness to the needs of learners as humans of a particular age.


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