79 Ideas for (Re)Designing Schools

By Amy Wickner — December 03, 2013 3 min read
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“School design” can mean anything from a technology strategy to safety planning to a curriculum design or “pathways” approach. Yet another kind of school design is in the spotlight in The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning (Abrams, 2010), a collaboration between OWP/P Architects (a Chicago firm specializing in schools and hospitals), VS Furniture (furniture design-builders based in Germany), and Bruce Mau Design (a graphic design firm). The Third Teacher looks at the built – or architectural – environment in education and how it influences the various other facets of school design.

The “79 ways” of the book’s subtitle are a set of maxims for school design. Within eight chapters that progress topically from “Basic Needs” to “Sustainable Schools” to “Learning for All” (and more), the “79 ways” include:

No. 6. Assign the solution Make health and safety a classroom project and develop lesson plans that will make real improvements to the learning environment. No. 20. Make peace with fidgeting Think of it as brain development, which it is. Then think of how to make room for it in the classroom. No. 33. Move in together Building a new school is an opportunity to make friends with other community services, such as libraries and recreational facilities, and perhaps even make a new home together on a single campus. No. 42. Reveal how stuff works Making school infrastructure literally transparent, to display the flows of water and waste, teaches kids the workings of the real world. No. 56. Design in multiple dimensions Evaluate ideas, features, and materials for the learning environment on their sensitivity to color, light, and texture. No. 58. Define the learning landscape A child's world expands as he develops. Keep pace by providing environmental experiences that are developmentally appropriate. No. 75. Plan for the unknown New technology brings with it new teaching opportunities—design a learning environment that will allow teachers to modify their methods and expectations as technology changes.

Many of these principles assume that communities and districts have the resources to build new schools, or otherwise start fresh with new facilities and technology. Statements like, “School can start at a student’s front door, if the commute is designed as well as the building” – based on the premise that any social condition may be improved through design – may prompt double takes or head shakes, too. However, one might approach The Third Teacher as a guidebook for incremental change, encouraging educators and communities to repurpose from-scratch suggestions as ways to re-make existing schools.

Bruce Mau, a Canadian graphic designer, has collaborated with architects, environmental scientists, urban planners, and artists on several other books in this vein. Notable titles include S, M, L, XL (The Monacelli Press, 1995), a collection of work and writing by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture; and Massive Change (Phaidon Press, 2004), a book and exhibit that explored the possibility of “using design to effect positive change in the world.”

The Third Teacher is more densely packed with text than either of those books, the graphic design more ordered, less aggressive. It therefore lends itself more readily to sequential reading, although short articles make flip-through browsing viable as well. Two-inch-high orange type on all-black backgrounds – or dark shading over full-bleed photographs – makes each of the “79 ways” stand out on its own page.

Highlights of The Third Teacher include photographs of exemplary, often one-of-a-kind schools and student testimony about how school works for them. Seeing student work, students at work, and the environments in which they work may also be eye-opening for many.

A short chapter on “The Child’s Expanding World” demonstrates how children’s perceptions of space and geography change over time. Student-drawn maps accompany this argument for place-based learning. Photographs of one German school, in which children sit every which way in their chairs, point out the flexible design of classroom furniture – a “detail” to some, but the authors argue it is actually fundamental to successful teaching and learning.

Full of input from a wide range of educators, scholars, activists, and children, this book aims to bring designers and educators together for new perspectives on teaching and learning environments. The authors must meet a middle ground between their two target audiences, so the written components don’t exactly delve into sophisticated concepts. Trying to fit “Elements of a Sustainable School” or “A Short History of American Public Education” into just 300 words may strike specialists in either field as naive and oversimplified. However, The Third Teacher is mostly about opening lines of inquiry for further exploration. Given that intention, the accessible writing, copious use of images, striking book design, and engaging examples succeed.

Education Week reporters have covered this particular kind of school design from several angles. Jackie Zubrzycki wrote about school facilities’ influence on student engagement and school climate; while Katie Ash looked at several schools whose redesign prioritized blended learning and mobile technology initiatives.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.