Beware of the Word ‘Flexible’: Architect Danish Kurani on Designing 21st...

column | PK-12 School Models

Beware of the Word ‘Flexible’: Architect Danish Kurani on Designing 21st Century Schools

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Apr 11, 2017

Beware of the Word ‘Flexible’: Architect Danish Kurani on Designing 21st Century Schools
A view of the Google Code Next Lab in Oakland, CA, one of Kurani's projects.

“Flexible.” It’s a word that often pops up in conversations about redesigning learning environments, relating to choices in furniture or movable walls. But according to Danish Kurani, redesigning 21st century classrooms goes much deeper than merely achieving flexibility—it involves going all the way back to considering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Kurani is a licensed architect who focuses his work on learning spaces, and currently teaches a “Learning Environments for Tomorrow” course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education every year. Having worked on locations ranging from Denver’s Columbine Elementary to SELNY, a psychotherapy clinic and adult learning center in New York, Kurani has seen and used a variety of tactics to implement learning design in pursuit of specific goals.

This week, EdSurge sat down with him to hear about the most common design constraints, architecture gone wrong, and the work his firm recently conducted on the Code Next Lab in Oakland. Check out the Q&A below, or the recording on the EdSurge podcast.

EdSurge: Danish, as an architect, why did you decide to pursue education as a field for design?

Danish Kurani: A few years ago, when I started Kurani as a design practice, it was with the intent that we would use architecture to help solve global problems and challenges. I think, a lot of times, when we're thinking about the biggest problems in the world—whether it's poverty alleviation, or environmental issues, or healthy living and healthcare, or education—architects aren't usually at that round table. I wanted to make sure that we had a seat at that table, because I think our surroundings make such an impact in our lives. Of course, you've got to pick somewhere to start, and being an immigrant in this country, when you grow up in an immigrant family, usually education's paramount. Your parents understand that, for upward mobility, you've got to be educated. That was always of high importance in our family.

Many years ago, I also ran a college prep mentoring program, so I had some experience working with middle school and high school students. While I was studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I did a lot of work with the Harvard Education school, and that was fantastic. [Educators] are such passionate people—undervalued, but always showing up with their best. The amount of care and concern you guys put into the well-being of others, it's amazing. Having done a lot of work with educators at Harvard, working with Boston Public Schools, it just made sense. It was something I cared about.

I know that you've been in a fair number of classrooms, both at the K-12 level and the higher education level. I'm assuming that you've seen various issues with the way that current spaces still retain some of those design principles from the industrial age or the 1950's.

For me, the problem is actually that they're not designed, or that they were designed so long ago that the designs are no longer relevant.

Khan Lab School's new space. (Kurani)

The challenge with school buildings, or with any brick-and-mortar structure, is that it’s hard to keep pace. Education is nimble, fast-moving. Sir Ken Robinson's saying one thing today, and then something else five years from now is coming up as the new trend or the new ideology. I think it's imperative that architects find a way to keep pace with you guys.

If we're talking about K-12 schools in the U.S., most of them were built in the '50s and '60s. They were probably obsolete by the '70s. But, we've just dragged them into 2016 and 2017. I think that's the biggest problem—we're just dealing with completely outdated infrastructure, which needs to be rethought.

I was at SXSWedu in Austin a couple of weeks ago, and I heard educators talking about learning environment design as something that they were interested in. Most of the examples I heard had to do with moving furniture, or painting the walls. But, I'm wondering if there's something deeper than that. In your experience, what does the research say about the ways in which learning environments should be redesigned to better support student learning?

Well, I'll say this. When I was at Harvard, I did a lot of this research, just looking at what people there are calling the frontier of knowledge in this field. Surprisingly, most of the quantitative, longitudinal studies really just focus on what I call “basic needs.” If you consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, we're thinking food, shelter, water, that type of stuff—the basic securities that people need. The research in learning spaces only focuses on that. Is your environment clean, healthy, and safe? Do you have enough natural light? Do you have healthy materials? Are you free of asbestos?

I can say, from personal experience, that when schools think about redesign, they're thinking furniture. They're thinking of these buzzwords—"Let's make it modular, let's make our classrooms flexible." I always warn schools: beware of the word “flexible.” It's actually a really hollow term. That's just an architect's trick to say, "You know, we're just gonna put everything on casters, so it's movable." Actually, you haven’t designed anything—you've just left it open to possibility.

Think about our surroundings. Surroundings have acoustics and noise. They have light and color. They have texture and materiality. Obviously, they have the furniture. You have graphics and inspiration, visuals, technology around you. There's a myriad of things, and so we actually go through this entire list of everything that makes up a student's environment and make sure that we are clicking on all cylinders. It's not just that you change the furniture and walk away. That's a fraction of someone's surroundings.

You've worked with Boston Public Schools, Denver Public Schools, Google. Whether K-12 or higher education, what do you think is the project that you yourself are most proud of?

We've been very fortunate. We've worked with a lot of different school districts, including innovation labs like the Imaginarium at Denver Public Schools. We recently designed a middle school and high school for the Khan Lab School in Mountain View. I think the project that we did with Google—their Code Next Lab in Oakland—was particularly special. It reminded me of my childhood, and I'll tell you why.

Kurani and Google build lab for young Computer Scientists from Kurani on Vimeo.

The innovation labs that we were working with wanted to focus on minority communities that didn't really have access to technology. Google's mission with this program was to inspire the next generation of tech innovators. How do you get these kids excited when they've really not had exposure to tech, to computer science? Also, they don't have access to this stuff in a lot of these communities, nor did they have role models [in Computer Science]. We often show Elon Musk and Bill Gates, but how often do these students get to see men and women that look like them, that they can actually feel some sort of connection to?

We built this lab, where the entire environment encourages tinkering and making, and really supports a constructivist type of learning. The lab has an academic classroom, but it also has a makerspace, where they focus on engineering and STEM-type work. And, the whole theme of the lab is computer science heroes—all the walls have graphics and installations that talk about the history of computer science and how it relates to the kids' lives.

For me, it's just a very special project; seeing these kids in there really warms your heart. We wanted kids to be able to project whatever they think the future of technology and computer science should be. What do we want it to be? How can it serve us and our communities better? It's a fantastic opportunity for them, so I think that was very special for us.

Mary Jo Madda—@MJMadda—is Manager of Audience Development (previously Senior Editor) at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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