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4 Ideas That Are Transforming School Design

With collaborative and project-based learning on the rise, as well as the increasing role of technology in education, could the humble classroom be due its most extreme makeover ever?

  • 4 Ideas That Are Transforming School Design

In 2014, popular YouTube science educator Veritasium released this superb video, ‘This will revolutionise education’ tracing the big claims made for the future of the motion picture, the possibilities of radio in the 1930s, and even the wonders of the videodisc just a few decades ago..

Despite all these promised revolutions, the classroom is often accused of looking much the same today as it did a hundred years ago: a group of seated students taught by a single teacher in a lecture-style format.

But while there has been no revolution, there has at least been a quiet transformation.

Projects like the two ORACLE studies, published in 1980 and 1999, give a glimpse into how education has evolved.

In that period, non-interaction time between students and teachers more than halved, classroom marking dropped by 75%, and children spent 50% more time in work-related discussion.

This quiet transformation, accelerated by new technologies and teaching philosophies, is having a real impact on school design and the classroom itself. Here are four ideas that are gradually overturning the staleness of our school designs for good:

Student voice

Since at least the 1930s, educational theorists have been emphasising the role of students themselves in the learning process.

As a result, we’ve seen an explosion in the popularity of student-centred learning strategies. Modern students are much more likely to lead learning activities, actively participate in discussions and contribute to the design of their own education.

This refocus towards learners has clearly transformed classroom design. Desks are now commonly configured in clusters, groups or semicircles, promoting student interactions and more flexibly distributing attention between group tasks and teacher-centred presentations.

More importantly, students today are often directly involved in creating their learning environment.

For many teachers, that means giving children a say in classroom layout, zoning, colours or decoration; however, the power of pupils has become much more far reaching in recent years. And Projects like the Sorrell Foundation’s Joinedupdesignforschools initiative have sought to canvass student opinion in the development of large-scale building projects.

Finding a home for EdTech

For some it is the cure to every education woe, for others it’s a mindless distraction, but the relationship between education and technology isn’t going away.

For some time, the focus has been moving towards realising the true utility of technology in the classroom. In the past year, highlights from Edutopia’s archive include Matching Edtech Products With Neurological Learning Goals, Technology Integration is Key and Are We Getting Smarter about Ed Tech?

The answer to that last question appears to be a resounding yes. Fortunately, school design too is reacting to this paradigm shift.

Model classrooms of the future, like this one from Hope Education, now describe their aims as ‘improving and enhancing traditional teaching methods’.

Collaboration is king

Research highlighting the benefits of collaborative learning has been building for many years, with studies revealing increased performance across subjects. There are still valid concerns, especially surrounding the treatment of introverts, but it seems collaborative learning must now play a role in every school.

The question is then: how can our school spaces promote collaboration? Part of the answer may lie in those very workplaces for which students are destined.

Over the past few decades, much effort has gone into imagining the perfect collaborative work environment. As the Harvard Business Review puts it, ‘In Silicon Valley, the tight correlation between personal interactions, performance and innovation is an article of faith’.

So what lessons have they learnt? Stanford d.school is perhaps the pinnacle of collaborative learning spaces, iteratively crafted over many years to achieve just that goal.

Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, co-directors of the project, have described some of the key components. They suggest allowing users to contribute and express themselves, offering varied, flexible spaces, and even having a place to hide away.

Some of those lessons are already being applied in schools. Zoned classrooms provide variety, balancing solitude and interaction, while movable seating and desks increase flexibility and help students adapt their environment.

The next frontier is encouraging collaboration outside the classroom, from reinvented libraries to makerspaces. Creative encounters by the water cooler may soon have their analogue by the school lockers.

Project-based learning

PBL is a pedagogic approach that takes student-centred, collaborative thinking to the next level. The technique combines learning and doing, engaging students by tackling real-world problems, with an emphasis on guidance rather than rote learning.

Positive research findings, including a number of meta analyses that found ‘PBL students either did as well as or better than their lecture-based counterparts’, have led to a meteoric rise in the technique’s popularity.

When it comes to school design, PBL poses radically different challenges. In their book Thinking Through Project-Based Learning, Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss ask the reader to imagine an ideal creative workspace, and then ask the simple question, ‘Was the place you imagined a school? If the answer was “no”, why not?’

It’s a powerful question. The reality is, many schools and classrooms look nothing like that model of creative collaboration concocted at Stanford’s d.school. Even more painfully, revolutionary spaces may fail to provide a healthy balance between PBL and traditional teaching methods.

That’s a problem because research suggests PBL is already difficult to implement in practice. Students often struggle to initiate inquiry, manage time and use technology productively.

The goal therefore is to build classrooms and other areas that ease students into independent learning, offering the tools to tackle truly magnificent projects without introducing distractions – no trivial task.

For now, schools are generally starting small, giving teachers the time to better understand PBL’s potential and pitfalls.

However, if schools really want to make the most of the system, helping children to research, design, build and ultimately learn, the school buildings of the future may be barely recognisable.

Tom Brialey is the Owner of Action Storage

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