Friday, November 04, 2005

The need for new age school buildings

The ultimate efficiency - but one bird escapes? Our traditional schools are built based on an egg crate metaphor. Time for a rethink? Posted by Picasa

Visit a school and your own memories of school days come flooding back. If you visit a primary classroom it may look to be a different world with children’s art and research work displayed for all to admire ; students working in groups or individually; and some busy on a computer or two. Sometimes you have to look hard to find the teacher!

Remove everything and most classrooms are still based on the box like pattern that you would have worked in in your day. All too often a corridor unimaginatively links all the rooms. There was a time, in the 70/80s, when open plan classrooms were built but few remain today. Possibly a good idea ahead of its time, but the ones that worked well were exciting examples of collaborative teaching and learning.

A visit to most secondary schools and the changes are not as apparent. Teachers still teach their particular subjects, some in purpose built rooms such as a science lab or art room. The style of teaching will look similar and, in the main, computers will be found in a computer suite or information centre (the library).

Our memories of our schools are vivid and enduring and they define for us this place called school.

In areas of population growth in New Zealand you can visit purpose built primary and secondary schools which have been designed specifically for teaching in the 21st century.

If you were to visit such a school you would find little in common with the schoolrooms of your time. In many cases the new principal and senior staff were involved with the architects in planning such buildings, before the students even arrived, in line with their proposed philosophies and teaching practices.

Originally schools were modeled on factories as part of a modern industrial aged mass production mindset. They were, and many still are, run by bells, timetables, and insular specialist teaching 'delivering' a ‘just in case’ standardized’ curriculum that many student couldn’t, and still can't, see the relevance in. Their role was to produce students who could fit in with the work pasterns required for the day. Many students left school early to take up employment.

Today things have changed new attributes are now required. Future workers will live in a global world based on ideas and imagination rather than raw products or capital. Schools will have to respond to this challenge. Old skills are important but no longer enough; new ‘key competencies’ are required. Schools need to develop the talents of all students in an environment of enthusiasm and flexibility – not quite the image of the schools many of us remember!

The new schools being built offer the best chance to develop the students we will need in the future. They will look nothing like the secondary schools of our past and will have more in common with the personalized environments of the best of our primary schools.

Such schools will feature students involved in collaborative projects, or independent studies, many relating to the environment the school is situated in, and students will need to call on the specialist knowledge of a range of teachers. Teachers, in turn, will collaborate with each other to tailor education to the needs of each student by providing a ‘just in time curriculum’. Information technology will be integrated into every corner of the school and student projects will be kept in electronic portfolios. Assessment will be based on what students can do, demonstrate or perform.

School buildings in the future, to accomodate these ideas, will need to be flexible and provide a range of studios, theatres, conferences rooms and workspaces. As well, there is a need to develop smaller, more diverse and intimate, secondary schools, or schools within schools, to allow positive relationship to flourish - or to offer a particular aspect of learning.

Schools will need to move away from a prison like mentality of control and isolation from the community and become ‘learning organizations’.They will need to share their facilities and, as well, make use of local facilities such as museums, sports grounds and local businesses.

All these ideas are already in place somewhere in New Zealand or in the wider world. For those interested there are plenty of organizations to gain inspiration and ideas from.

The Big Picture Company.
The Coalition of Essential Schools
The International Baccalaureate Schools
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Alfriston College Howick New Zealand

There is still a wide gap between the dream of personalized learning and the drudgery of the current reality for many students and teachers.

The biggest problem will be to change the mindsets of those who have spent too long being conditioned to accept schools as they are and, if anything, want to go back to the past; searching for some ‘golden age’ for their inspiration.

The factory designed image of our ‘one size fits all’ secondary schools has well passed their ‘use by date’. Too many students are ‘disengaged’ and are falling through the cracks. New thinking is required, particularly for the talented and less academic.

It is hard to leave our mental cages, or our nostalgia for the past, and begin to explore new and exciting possibilities but, eventually, we will have no choice.


Anonymous said...

I do think the traditional biuldings - designed for traditional transmission teaching, are half the problem in secondary schools. As Churchill once said, 'We shape our buidings and they in turn shape us.' I think we need to set up a range of alternatives schools to try out new ideas.

Anonymous said...

The other half of the problem are the dinosaur 'mindsets' of the teachers.

Anonymous said...

If teachers were free from their antiquated 19th 'egg crate' buildings they would possibly just rebuild them back into the same shape - learning comes hard to those trained to know all the answers!

Anonymous said...

Flexible buidings are one thing - flexible teachers another.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I heard, at the recent 'ulearn 05' conference held this year at Sky City, from the principal and teachers of a newly designed secondary school about what they are trying to do and it was really inspirational.

Anonymous said...

As for the bird that escaped - we all know what happened when 'One flew out of the cuckoo nest'

Bruce Hammonds said...

Having been in a secondary school the past week I am pleased to have escaped! Failure is endemic in the DNA of the structures and 'mindsets' of current schools -I feel sorry for both the teachers and the pupils. As Bob Dylan sang, 'You can't tell the prisoners from the guards.'