The Past, Present and Future of School Design

To maximize the benefits of blended learning, we’ll need to rethink not just the system architecture of schooling, but also the physical architecture of schools themselves. We need more designers and architects thinking about how schools should change their physical design, clarifying the principles underlying these changes, and illuminating the path to move from today’s egg-crate boxes to designs fit for the future.

This is the second of a two-part interview with Larry Kearns, an architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects, exploring the history and future of school design. Be sure to check out Part 1 for his insights into his work on the design of Intrinsic Schools, a cutting-edge blended-learning school in Chicago.

Horn: I imagine you hear about the failed open classroom movement of the 1970s a fair bit given your innovative designs. What do you see as the lessons from that movement and how do we avoid the pitfalls now when thinking about school redesign? What is different about this moment in time with blended learning from the 1970s?

Kearns: Yes, we encounter those references.

The big difference is that the open plan school movement of the 1970s had a premise that any activity could occur anywhere. The idea was that a “universal” space could be recruited for a multitude of activities. Unfortunately, those universal spaces weren’t particularly good for any one activity, so they were quickly abandoned or modified. Furthermore, the freedom sought from the cellular classrooms wasn’t combined with any technological advances in learning.

In contrast, blended learning introduces advances in digital technology that have impacted other industries so profoundly into the educational environment. In designing Intrinsic’s environment, our goal was not to make an infinitely flexible space. Our goal was to interweave purposefully designed spaces for different modes of learning in one large space. So, in a way, it is the antithesis of the 1970s movement.

We talk a lot about not wanting to the be the last district superintendent to build a 20th-century school building, yet it’s hard—all the traditional school architectural firms, builders, and schooling communities seem to gravitate naturally toward variations of that egg-crate classroom design. Why does this happen? What traps should school systems avoid when building new schools and how should they engage architects, builders, and the broader community?

The inertia of the traditional educational ecosystem makes change incredibly difficult. Like any ecosystem, there are so many interconnected parts that rely on each other. It is often difficult for any one part of the ecosystem to see possibilities of radical change across the entire system.

When we speak with community members when blended-learning schools are proposed, many question the need for a new school in a neighborhood that already has enough “seats” in existing schools. Most people look at schools as a commodity, where one size fits all and seat time is the primary metric. Most can’t even imagine that meaningful innovation is even possible.

I recall a high school teacher of mine once telling a classmate who just suffered a breakup with a longtime boyfriend that the healing time for her was going to be one half of the time they had been together. Although completely unscientific, I’ve always found some truth in that. Since the United States has been engaged with the industrial education model since the 19th century, the embrace of a new idea will not occur overnight.

Like parents, most superintendents don’t want to experiment with their children’s futures. But in taking little risk, there is little promise of return. I think, once success is demonstrated by a few innovative schools at a small scale, risks will abate and then the fear of being left out will dominate. I just don’t know when that tipping point will occur.

One part of the ecosystem that directly challenges architects is the extent of codification and standardization that is engrained in district policies and city building codes. In order to complete Intrinsic, we had to apply for every kind of code relief possible. Since the codes only referenced the egg-crate school, no one knew how to apply the rules. So the major trap to avoid is the impulse to design schools literally by the books that exist now. The books need to be edited for the 21st century. That is the first thing school districts need to rethink—how spaces in schools can be designed to mediate learning more effectively.

What are the opportunities for school design in this blended-learning era? What opportunities are still untapped?

Since the educational industry is just starting to respond to the promises of the digital revolution, the frontier is wide and vast. Although most opponents decry students sitting in front of computer screens, most insiders know that the real gold to be mined in the digital era is more effective use of the teacher’s time in face-to-face interactions with students.

Instead of instructing undifferentiated groups of students with a vast range of talents and interests, teachers will gather students in small groups, based on data gleaned from their online work, to remediate misunderstandings or reinforce newly acquired concepts. Instead of being forced to teach “to the middle” of a group of students, teachers will be able to connect with every student in the group. This will prove most effective in urban districts where the “bell curve” of talent is widely distributed. For years, the success of selective enrollment schools has masked the limitations of traditional large group direct instruction. These selective enrollment schools already group students using data, just at a larger scale, to allow more effective group instruction.

Schools of the future will feature effective interactions of small groups of people within communal spaces. Teachers, typically isolated from their peers in traditional settings, will benefit from the comradery, exchange, and feedback with multiple colleagues that teach in the same physical space. Students, traditionally tracked with a group of 30 of their peers, will be exposed to a much larger social group and multiple instructors.

Also fueled by the digital revolution, maker spaces will become omnipresent in all schools to the extent where they will become part of every classroom. Similar to the computer labs of the early 2000s, these spaces will first arrive in schools as a single shared resource. Eventually, in schools like Intrinsic, digital manufacturing devices like 3D-printers and laser cutters will be everywhere. Students will use these tools to explore and test ideas in the humanities, math and science. The focus will be less and less on the cost of these tools and more about the process of learning. The teachers will have many more tools in their tool belts than in the past. There will be much less focus on computers since they will be integrated with many tools used in the classroom.

The untapped opportunities involve further personalization of the curriculum, teaching, and assessment. Anything, including technology, that expands the teacher’s repertoire, will be compelling.

What do you think schools will look like in 2050? How will we get there?

From an urban perspective, schools will migrate away from isolated residential neighborhoods. Similar to what has happened with religious institutions, schools will emerge from the neighborhoods to more populated commercial streets, allowing for increased mobility of students and specialization of instruction. Schools will be anything but one-size-fits all. Their physical spaces will reflect their specialization and needs. Instead of being part of large monolithic networks, schools will be part of smaller, more nimble networks that collaborate to unlock learning for students with a highly personalized education. Industries will emerge that track the efficacy of individual schools and the performance of their networks.

Schools will no longer be just free-standing buildings but will be more integrated into community life. They will be part of multiuse buildings and will shed the imagery of permanent government buildings meant to awe. They will become engaging structures aimed at stimulating creativity.

Segregating students by age will become less prevalent within learning spaces. By 2050, egg-crate schools will no longer be constructed.

In order to get there, innovators must share their stories, including failures and successes. School leaders must create school cultures of mutual respect that allow students to learn in large communities. Politicians need to spend political capital to change mindsets and codes. Universities need to completely reinvent their curricula to integrate blended learning and focus on small group interactions. Architects will need to check their preconceptions at the door and focus on accommodating the learning modes and environments that best support them. The professional stature of teachers will elevate and highly effective teachers will be competitively sought after to coach others.

Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayon Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. He is also an EdSurge columnist.

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