Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Instruction Drives Construction ... Or Should

By Frank Kelly — June 30, 2008 5 min read
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My colleagues and I work for an architecture firm focused on education, so we’ve attended and made presentations at various gatherings in the field. At one recent conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, we set up a small booth in the exhibit hall featuring images of school buildings we had designed. Most folks passed us by with quizzical looks on their faces, but a few stopped to ask, “Why are you here? This conference is about education.”

Having thought that our school designs were all about education, we were perplexed—until we recognized that most of those in attendance were focused on teaching, and that, in their entire careers perhaps, had never had the opportunity to shape the environment in which they taught. At best, they were assigned to a room, allowed to hang posters on the walls, and shuffled rows of desks. The notion that their approach to teaching and learning could be reflected in and enhanced by the school building simply never occurred to them.

Buildings are among the most telling artifacts of what we believe, what we value, and what we think. Western Europe’s great cathedrals built in the 12th to 16th centuries leave no doubt about what was most important in their time. While our society in the 21st century is far more diverse, our buildings will speak just as clearly to future generations—including the kids who attend our schools.

What do our school buildings say about what we think is really important? What do schools being built in 2008 around Frederick W. Taylor’s and William Wirt’s ideas from 1908 say to kids about their futures? What do schools that mimic the architecture of other centuries say to the children within them working on digital devices? Are our school buildings saying what we want to convey to teachers and students?

Schools are inherently about the future. We design school facilities to house the education of students for their futures, and we plan those facilities to last for decades. Our challenge is heightened by the most rapid change in all of human history—Moore’s Law, which defines the exponential growth in digital technology, is quickening the pace of change in every aspect of our society. In planning new or renovated school facilities, educators and architects are “futurists’’—the question is whether we recognize and fulfill the responsibility thrust upon us.

We cannot forget the past, but in times of rapid change, we must recognize how distant even the recent past can be. That poses huge problems for creating new schools—most of the basic decisions about schools are set by custom, assumptions, and laws before the design even begins. The question most often asked is not “how do we want to teach?” but “how many classrooms do we need?”

The question most often asked is not “how do we want to teach?” but “how many classrooms do we need?”

Our aspirations and the reality of our practices are often at odds. We talk about individualized instruction, but plan schools around spaces for group instruction. We talk about technology and anytime, anywhere learning, but persist in thinking that teachers must lecture at kids for them to learn. We talk about accommodating different learning styles and realizing success for all students, but persist in fixing the lengths of school years, days, and periods—and labeling those who don’t learn in the time allotted failures. We talk about higher-order thinking skills and authentic assessment, but standardized tests drive much of what we do. Old practices are a severe constraint in the creation of schools for the new teaching and learning our kids will need in their futures.

We must begin the planning of new or renovated schools by stepping back from the details to challenge, rethink, or reconfirm all our assumptions about what a school is and how it should work. Before any educational specification or program is written or design drawing prepared, administrators, board members, teachers, students, parents, and community representatives should come together to consider the big picture.

It is helpful to be mindful of how long it will take to plan and construct the school, how long it will be before the first class graduates, and how much the world may have changed in that time. While it may be daunting to imagine what school buildings should be like in the future, we should recall that our real task is helping kids prepare to succeed in that very same future.

Making school buildings for a future of rapid change is very different from what we did in the 20th century, when we thought kids and communities were served best by durable, permanent facilities. Unfortunately, we were very good at it, and today we are saddled with facilities that are difficult or impossible to modify to accommodate new teaching and learning needs. To make schools for an uncertain future, we need to anticipate that numerous major instructional changes will occur over the life of the building, and then plan spaces, building systems, and materials accordingly. This is not an objective peculiar to education—office and retail structures have been planned for such flexibility for decades.

To realize schools for the future, we must recognize that the elements of schools, such as instruction, technology, time, architecture, and money, are not separate, but integrally related. We cannot deal with any one of these without having a corresponding impact on the others. School districts have wasted vast sums on new technology by inserting it into the same classrooms where the same teachers used the same teaching methods on the same fixed schedules. Then we blamed the technology when it counted for little.

Decades ago, we created open-plan schools to allow more team and interdisciplinary teaching, flexibility, innovation in teaching methods, and varied groupings of students. Then we called the open plan a failure when it thwarted the old instructional methods it was intended to change. We need to think broadly about making whole systems work, both in designing and operating schools.

To make schools for the future, we must plan systemically for all the elements that make up the learning environment—and that is the essence of what should happen in the programming and design of new or renovated school facilities. That is also why architects have a real role in making better schools, and why they should participate more in educational conferences such as the ASCD’s.

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