Constructing the Future

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Task predicts performance.

You’ll often hear this phrase when speaking to Prakash Nair, the Founding President and CEO of Fielding Nair International, an educational architecture firm that has earned accolades around the world for its innovative school facilities projects. His approach is unique among architects, reflecting a strong belief that space within schools tells a story to that community about learning and the impact that learning has. Does space convey student agency? Does it encourage autonomy? In Prakash’s experience, the answers are all too often no.

In 2012 the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) in the United States published a history of school design, tracing the changes in design and form over the past 150 years. Spurred by calls for standardization of schools, those built through the first half of the 20th century were frequently “utilitarian spaces that were designed to house as many students as possible, maximizing classroom space”. Interestingly, though later research began to demonstrate the importance of environment on student learning, few innovations occurred in the decades that followed, with most changes occurring in minor improvements in lighting, ventilation and acoustics.

What did not change was the design. Prakash describes the blueprint of most existing schools as a structure made for control, with a single teacher set as the focal point of a row of desks, reminiscent of a factory, and long corridors of empty space that served only to funnel students from one point to another. This model served a singular purpose: encouraging compliancy and respect for authority, while also drowning creativity and disconformity. Those of us who spent our formative years in schools such as this can easily recall the weariness and frustration felt when sitting in uncomfortable chairs in a stuffy classroom, listening to a teacher lecture before robotically shifting to the next class at the sound of a bell.

The reality is that learning has long since escaped the walls of those classrooms, and often of schools themselves, which are woefully unequipped to prepare students for the future. Two years ago, the World Economic Forum suggested that “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist”, a staggering figure that highlights just how much work traditional schools have to do. Students graduating from high school and university frequently do not have the transferable skills being sought by employers, who cite communication, critical thinking, innovation and similar areas as being crucial for new hires.

Clearly, a disconnect exists between these expectations and the way in which schools continue to shape their facilities and learning. In The Atlantic article Reimagining the Modern Classroom, Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, described the way in which this model will begin to shift:

Students will learn in student-centered environments—perhaps we’ll call them learning studios—where each student’s learning is personalized to meet his or her precise needs. It will be critical to rearrange the physical space and furniture to align with the principles of student agency, flexibility, and choice that are the core of new learning models. Because these models will leverage multiple modes of learning, they will need spaces built for different activities, which can occur individually through digital media or in small interactive groups.

Task predicts performance. If schools and educators have any hope of preparing students for the challenges of a highly unpredictable future with challenges ranging from climate change to ideological extremism, they must begin change not only how learning happens, but also where it happens. Inculcating soft skills and cognitive flexibility first and foremost requires the creation of spaces within schools in which students can practice those skills. Most importantly, this must be a process that involves the entire community, drawing on the insights from the learners themselves.

The NCEF report, despite its critical view, offers hope for the future and arguest that a “reflective, open, and honest design community with robust feedback loops is critical to learning what works well for educational environments.” The appeal has already been met by many institutions scattered across the globe, and Prakash is currently working with NIST to bring this collaborative approach to life. From his perspective, our school represents the “best of the old” and from this point of strength can capitalize on its strong community to become a model for a new educational paradigm.

In early March, Prakash and his team visited us and led interactive sessions with teachers, staff, board members, students and parents to gain a sense of the community’s culture, as well as the common understandings of teaching and learning. The shared ownership helps develop the key drivers of the later designs in the process, leading a final blueprint that will be wholly unique to NIST. The reimagining of the physical space in the campus will in turn drive the creation of authentic learning opportunities that mirror what students experience outside of the school.

To Prakash, change is imperative: “schools will either fade out of existence or reinvent themselves to give meaningful experiences to students”. Education must begin producing learners who are not simply good at tests, but rather are agile thinkers who can navigate a complex world and enrich the lives of others throughout their journey.