On Designing School Buildings: Start with your Heart

On Designing School Buildings: Start with your Heart

A common issue that arises in building schools is – where do we begin? Do we follow the funding? Build to the test? Anticipate new technologies? How much do we invest in hard-wiring when wireless technology is evolving so fast? Do we expect classes to always be the same size? And of course, what about school shootings? It’s enough to make your head spin.

The design process is a bit of a monster, and my hat’s off to architects who run the meetings to gather input. (Often called charrettes, which I think is French for small barbecues — a snooty word which I suspect is plenty intimidating to regular folks right from the start.)

Running charrettes is hard work, like crossing a mine field, equal parts reasonable conflict and unreasonable looniness. I’ve seen designs compromised just to accommodate one loud parent who filibustered for their favorite color, or had a fixation on sliding doors or tennis courts. On the other hand, I’ve also seen meetings where it was that one loud parent who raised a critical point. Annoying at the time, but in retrospect a helpful nudge in a positive direction.
A very hot topic can shift priorities. A recent shooting almost always moves school security to the top of the list. Bad academic showings, a burst of enthusiasm for engineering, soccer, open classrooms or small learning communities can have an impact as well.

Trying to guess what learning environments should look like ten years from now is a tricky proposition. Now that facts are easy to come by electronically, along with fake facts to confuse us, what’s left? Will it all be project-based or student directed?

Here are some of my own wild guesses:

Cooler tools. We’re at the infancy stage for all kinds of electronic gear, some of which already exists, a lot of which doesn’t. As one minor example, I expect we’ll see a lot more 3D printing of student inventions that actually work.

Customization. I also expect, or at least hope, we’ll find ways to customize the learning experience individually for each student, taking into account everything from their learning styles and brain structures, to their home lives and whether they ate breakfast. A big plus of new technology is the ability to track data on each student to say weaknesses and strengths, and to respond accordingly. IEP’s (Individual Education Plans) will become far more sophisticated. The better we get at identifying obstacles, the better we’ll get at overcoming them. In too many cases, we miss the real problems – dyslexia, hearing loss, abuse at home – and hammer away at having them memorize times tables.

Community. I think we’ll see a lot more community connectivity, including civic improvement projects, cross-disciplinary studies and ever-higher technology.

Environmental Studies. I also think we’ll hear more and more of a demand for connection to the natural world, ranging from climate studies to energy efficiency, water purification and management of food supplies.

Passion. The most important players in the world of education are the teachers and the students. In both cases, the determining factor in their enthusiasm for their school experience is their own ownership, empowerment and especially personal passion for what they’re studying. The best schools of the future will let teachers off their leashes – no more teaching to the test, far less obsessing about common core standards – and give them both room and incentive to draw on their own strengths and interests. On the flip side of that same coin, we’ll help students find their passions and follow them. Our roles as educators will involve coaching and supporting their pursuits of their own dreams, while tailoring academics to wrap around that passionate core. One of the sad realities of schooling is that our passions are treated as secondary concerns, because laying down that broad foundation is so, so essential. So we keep building a foundation, until the time comes when we can pursue our passions, but at that point we need to grab whatever job we can, and then we have families, and the passion keeps getting pushed aside. Let’s make those passions our priorities.

Oh is that all. My advice in the meantime is – consider everything. Share your dreams, but stay open to others’ perspectives. Take more than one lap around the track, considering all the input before latching on to any one vision prematurely. Then start with your heart, but listen to your head and your gut as well. Let your hopes and dreams run wild, but follow up with practical adjustments. If your heart says you want a wide open campus, fine, but consider the implications for security and look for ways to compensate. Finding the right balance is the challenge.

A camel, says the old proverb, is a horse designed by a committee, as if that’s a bad thing, but that’s not necessarily so. A school that’s exceptionally well designed for enduring heat waves and conserving water might be way ahead of the curve. Or maybe not. You could end up with a school that spits, and has a lousy disposition. horsecamel

Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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