School Climate & Safety Opinion

But Are They Learning?

By Prakash Nair — April 03, 2002 11 min read
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America spends billions annually to build and renovate schools. How much of that money actually improves learning?

America spends more than $20 billion annually to build and renovate schools. And that figure is expected to grow steadily over the next several years. In an era of educational reform and accountability, it seems reasonable to ask, how much of this money will be spent to improve learning outcomes?

Most people would agree with the proposition: School buildings have an impact on student learning. But few, especially among politicians and school construction officials, have stopped to ponder why this is so. Much of the public discussion about the need for more construction money centers around the consensus that children need “a safe, clean, and comfortable environment” to learn. Beyond that, one would be hard pressed to find a public official saying what it is about new school buildings that improves learning.

The truth of the matter is that school buildings have been and continue to be places to warehouse children. New schools just do it in more comfortable settings. If we look at the way most government agencies handle the “business” of school design and construction, we find that the system seems literally designed to weed out any potential for a completely creative solution. There are many arguments for why this is so—why so many new schools look so much alike. But none is sillier, to my mind, than the one about equity. I have heard a superintendent, for example, argue against building an innovative school in his district because he was afraid it would make his other schools look bad. Rather than use the new school as an opportunity to pilot a new way of teaching and learning, this school leader preferred to pretend that the world had not changed.

Equity arguments, of course, are also concerned with not spending more money in one location than in another. But is it equitable to treat all people and all communities as if they were the same? True equity focuses on equalizing opportunities for every child to succeed. That might mean spending more effort or money in some locations and offering a variety of solutions tailored to the particular characteristics of each client community and, therein, for each child.

In the end, the school building is but one piece in the larger educational machinery. And about that larger machinery one generalization can safely be made: The industrial model prevails. The acquisition of information, often divorced from meaningful learning, is the norm. Surprisingly, despite this traditional model’s failures and many forces pulling education in a new direction, it is not only alive and well, but enjoying a resurgence. One powerful reason why is the comfort level that old, familiar schools evoke in the hearts and minds of those making decisions. “If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for my children” seems to be the prevailing sentiment. As we rely on such misguided nostalgia, the problem is not that communities give a wrong answer to the question “What is learning?,” but that they rarely ask the question at all.

To be sure, exemplary schools have been created by virtue of a particular leader’s single-minded devotion to getting results, aided by a band of like-minded reformists. But in the main, our system of education is simply not set up to nurture such tailored solutions. Every principal of a school that has broken the mold will tell you that he or she had to fight the “system” to get there. But what is the system? In almost every case, it is an enterprise broken up into a predefined series of fields and compartments. There are groups responsible for transportation, food and nutrition, building construction and maintenance, curriculum, security, administration, technology, community relations, special education, early-childhood programs, and on and on. Maybe there was a distant time when these groups all operated under one set of guiding principles oriented toward improving student learning, but today they operate more or less as disparate entities.

In other words, the system operates like a conglomeration of specialists, with no general practitioner in charge of the ultimate goal: learning. In this scheme of things, it’s not surprising that the facilities people reside in a place of their own with clearly established boundaries that others may not cross. Nor that they seem uninterested in challenging the standards handed to them by so-called specialists in the various other disciplines.

To recognize the gravity of these problems in the world of school planning and construction, imagine the design of a Boeing 747, with hundreds of thousands of parts but without someone visualizing the end product. Imagine having to design these parts in isolation with no clear idea of how they fit within the overall design for the plane. Now imagine the plane being designed without regard to its most important purpose, to fly, and its most important clients, its passengers. That, in fact, is how learning environments are generally created. Schools’ most important purpose— learning—and their most important clients—children and the local community—are largely disregarded in the process of their creation.

What I would like top-level managers to do is dismantle the roadblocks that make innovative schools almost impossible to build.

With this in mind, should we expect anything different from the school building bureaucracy? Apparently not. As for the private architectural community, its attempts to lead by example have not been very successful either. The “open classroom” model, for example, is often cited as a disastrous attempt by architects to influence educational practice. What happened was that as schools continued to grow and become more crowded, noise levels in these open spaces became unbearable—something that teachers contributed to by insisting on using the lecture model in spaces that were simply not designed for that kind of teaching and learning style.

Yet people are using this failure as an excuse to go on building the schools they are comfortable with—never mind that the industrial model of schooling should have died when the information and communications revolution began.

What I would like top-level managers to do is dismantle the roadblocks that make innovative schools almost impossible to build. I also think that governments can foster a positive atmosphere in which local communities feel safe to build innovative schools. A part of this is educating the community about important educational trends. A more important part is training bureaucrats to step aside, so that professionals and stakeholders can work more closely together to create schools that work.

School officials responsible for planning, constructing, and renovating facilities ought to be held accountable not only for whether the cost estimates are met and the air conditioning works, but also for the impact their decisions have on student learning. Bearing this responsibility will force these officials to consult more with front-line educators and to educate themselves in the kinds of learning environments most conducive to effective teaching and learning.

And the model will not be a one-size-fits-all copy of previous schools. Whatever the particular leanings of education’s most influential reformers, they seem to find agreement on some matters the school facilities professional should heed: Learning is highly individual and cannot be mass- produced. Each learner needs a tailored program, and children need to play active roles in their learning. Motivation comes from within each child and is not some externally applied force. The role of adults is to provide a caring and supportive presence.

Measures of performance, such as test scores, are far less important than measures of qualitative gains, such as a child’s improved social skills and emotional well-being. Ideas are good, and children need to be exposed to as many of them as possible, but, as Murray Coppen, a New Zealand educator, has said, they remain “inert” to a child without ways to try them out. This argues against passive transference and for true engagement.

Research is still sparse when it comes to evaluating the benefits of nontraditional learning spaces on learning outcomes. However, since there is solid evidence that progressive methods of education do work when properly implemented, it makes sense that school facility design should follow suit and support the new teaching and learning modalities.

Here are some ways in which small, learner-centered schools will be configured, though the list should not be read as some precise prescription for what will work in a particular community.

  • Learning Studios Instead of Traditional Classrooms. Classrooms will give way to multipurpose “learning studios,” places where different children could be engaged on different tasks in various activity zones. Daylight will be abundant, fixed furniture will be eliminated, and there will be adequate room for both individual space and group gatherings.

  • Kivas, Atriums, and “Learning Streets” Replace Corridors. Beyond the learning studio, new learning environments will have fewer corridors where students run past one another and more open areas—both within and outside the building—where social interaction is encouraged. A number of schools that have put these ideas into practice are showcased in the Designshare- and School Construction News-sponsored “Awards 2000" and “Awards 2001" programs.
Governments can foster a positive atmosphere in which local communities feel safe to build innovative schools.

  • Project Rooms for Project-Based Learning. These will be high- ceilinged areas with ample power, gas, work tables, and specialized equipment. They are places where students can work on long-term projects—usually building something.

Such rooms are distinguished from the traditional science labs and art rooms by the fact that they are not specialty oriented. That means one student could be building an architectural model next to another who is painting a large canvas, next to a student building a robot. As with the world outside school, projects won’t start and end with bells, and students will work on them at their own pace.

  • From Programmed Areas to Resource Areas. The school library or media center, cafeteria, and fitness center will become resource areas that students can use as they see fit—not on some predetermined schedule.
  • Multiage Groupings. As a reflection of the real world, most student groups will be based on aptitudes and interests and represent a range of ages. As Daniel Pink, the author of Free Agent Nation, puts the question: “When was the last time you spent all day in a room filled exclusively with people almost exactly your own age?”
  • Learning Outside School. Older students will spend a significant part of their time—perhaps as much as two or three days a week—outside the school building, involved in community service and school-to-work programs, and all students will share the wealth of the community’s many learning resources, like libraries, parks, and museums. This means that buildings may not need to accommodate as many students as before and could be built to a smaller scale.
  • Parent and Community Use. Areas will be designed with all the amenities needed for school-hours use by parents and volunteers and after- school use by all community residents.
  • Teacher Workrooms. Places will be provided for teacher research, collaborative work, and student meetings that treat teachers like the professionals they are.
  • A Place to Think. Students will have places where they can enjoy a moment of solitude, where they will be allowed both the time and the space to think or not think. Almost every creative endeavor is achieved at least in part through moments of solitude. Given the frenetic pace of modern daily life, the need for places that nourish the spirit and provide those moments has never been greater.
  • Technology as Liberator. With wireless laptops and other digital communications devices proliferating, and with the Internet becoming available to students when and where they need it, there will be less reason for students to be situated in a classroom to learn. Wireless technology will also permit equipment previously fixed in place, such as data projectors, printers, and scanners, to move freely around the school.
School officials responsible for planning, constructing, and renovating facilities ought to be held accountable for the impact their decisions have on student learning.

The school day will not end when students leave the building. Learning will continue at home, as students and teachers talk to one another via e-mail, or perhaps audio and video chat sessions. With more online course offerings, many classes will have no connection with the school building at all. “Classmates” will not be limited to those who share the same space, but will include those who share the same interests—in town, in another town, or even in another country.

  • Living, Not Static, Architecture. The building will be designed as a “living” space for maximum flexibility and change, so that the mix of learning areas—individual, team, small-group, and large-group—can be adjusted easily as needs vary.

Every one of these trends already has manifested itself in schools. And a few schools have actually been designed from the ground up as what I call “new paradigm” schools featuring such innovations. They practice the learning model of education, a departure from the schooling model still prevalent today. How long the old model can survive in the face of the successes enjoyed by so many alternative approaches is hard to say. It depends on how long nostalgia is allowed to cloud rational thinking about the requirements of learning environments.

School buildings are only a piece of the education reform puzzle, but they may be a more important piece than we have understood in the past. What better time is there for educators to take stock of where they are and where they want to go than just before investing all that money in construction? Planning a new school can be the catalyst for re-examining and challenging assumptions, so that what springs forth is not just a new configuration of bricks and mortar, but a whole new way to nurture learning.

Prakash Nair is an international school planning consultant, an architect, and the president of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century, located in Cherry Hill, N.J. This essay is adapted from a paper he presented in February at the International Workshop on Educational Infrastructure in Guadalajara, Mexico. He can be reached at Prakash@Designshare.com.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as But Are They Learning?


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