A group of middle schoolers from Red Deer (in Alberta, Canada) may have figured out how to take schools into the future

Here’s a little bit of context before we begin: I spent much of yesterday at a middle school in Memphis, TN. Here’s where it is:

I had a long conversation with the head maintenance guy over there, who wears a hardhat around often so that students call him “Hard Hat” (and affectionately give him caricatures of himself wearing a hard hat). He was a cool dude and whenever I’m at a place I have literally no understanding of, I try to get some context around it. He told me about the neighborhood and how it’s fairly close-knit, but does have a bit of a gang problem; locals call it “Chopper City” (there does appear to be a barber shop of the same name nearby-ish) and it seemed a little bit familiar to where I taught when I did Teach for America back in the day. My neighborhood was over 90 percent Hispanic; this one in Memphis was probably over 90 percent African-American. Regardless, though, the communities are tight. Hard Hat and I talked about that, and I got to see it first-hand later in the day; there was a kid’s birthday party at a park adjacent to the school and probably 100 or so people from the neighborhood seemed to roll up. It looked like fun.

Near the end of the afternoon, I wasn’t a part of any of the active sessions at the conference, so I was walking around the school a little bit — again, reminded me of the school I worked in and tons of others I’ve seen. Posters and inspirational sayings in the hallway, and each classroom having desks, chairs, textbooks, a projector, a screen, learning objectives, cards/some kind of project where students list their goals, etc. You’ve been in one middle school/high school, you’ve pretty much been in most of ’em, honestly.

So I got back to this room me and a few others were doing work in — again, standard room with a white board that still had content about the phases of the moon from Friday drawn on it — and I started thinking about some of this stuff. First of all, Hard Hat was telling me a ton about the community, and how he thought they wanted to be more invested in the school, but either (a) didn’t see the point or (b) didn’t know how to do that or (c) some combination of those two. I’ve heard that from others connected to schools/education, so I was ruminating on that, then I was thinking about the fact that since the Industrial Revolution, we haven’t really changed that much about education — we’ve changed how we track and we’ve changed some of the technology around it (i.e. iPads in classrooms), but the fundamental ideas (i.e. length of a school year, layout of buildings) is pretty much the same as it was six decades ago and longer.

I wondered if there were people out there working on all this, and I figured there must be — so I found this, and where we need to start is here:

The Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) is the only professional organization whose principal purpose is improving the places where children learn. CEFPI embraces a diverse group of professionals with one single goal – building healthy, safe, high performance and sustainable learning environments that enhance student and teacher performance and support culture and community vitality.

Cool. The 2013 winners’ presentation — from Alberta — is embedded at the top of this post, and here’s a basic description of what they were proposing:

Eastview Middle School provided solutions not only for their school, but for their entire community and its public spaces. Their comprehensive research and incorporation of creative 21st century design solutions evident in their resultant building in a downtown urban setting focus on the establishment of community partnerships and educational delivery was outstanding. Emphasizing that “learning is not limited by four walls,” it was clear that these students thought through every aspect of contemporary educational design, learning styles and pedagogy. Following Finland’s very successful portfolio system they created individual learning programs and grouped students by learning styles. “Gamification” was introduced to inspire alternative learning skills. Incorporating geothermal heating and cooling, solar energy and public access for micro-climates with their green roof and gardens, the school serves as a learning tool for the entire community.

Here’s the team that came in second:

Some of what they were proposing?

The Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School team chose to build their STEM-centered facility on an abandoned coal mine, rethinking the existing landscape and truly embracing “renew, reuse, recycle” in creating their sustainable building. The team exemplified great social understanding with integration of multi-cultures as one of their highest goals. Their strong research and grasp of sustainable features and systems was exceptional. Utilizing rammed earth construction, a recycled oil rig infrastructure, hydro- electric energy, wind turbines, nitrogen generation, thermo-chromic glass and rainwater harvesting, the students created a unique learning environment incorporating flexible space to support project-based learning and collaboration with local businesses. Adding a spot of humor, they included “people- energy” with turbine tennis shoes as a power source, offering the community recreation privileges in exchange for their hours of turbine production.

They’ve done this contest before — here’s some info about 2012, for example — and one thing you need to remember is that (a) a lot of this is utopian, because the construction of innovative schools requires money, and the fronting of said money when the conventional school model has been working for millions for years is sometimes a hard sell and (b) some of the proposals would require context that maybe isn’t available (like an abandoned coal mine, or downtown space in a large city, etc.) This isn’t a perfect solution or anything, but we should — for real, we should — be re-thinking how we layout schools. For example:

1. Schools should have a solid connection to technology. I realize this is expensive, but in 2014 and future job markets, it’s also necessary. You need to learn how to use the Internet, how to navigate your life/brand on there, and how to figure out what information is/is not reputable. If you can’t do that on a daily basis in school, the school is failing you.

2. There do need to be more connections back to the overall community, although I’m not sure that has to do with an open layout or anything, specifically. That might have more to do with programming, although having open spaces or a project connected to the school — i.e. something solar or a garden or whatnot (gardens have been basic ideas around schools for decades) — is a productive thing.

3. Schools should re-imagine basic common spaces like the cafeteria, which is often pretty drab. Rather than displaying the Pre-K artwork — which is fun and adorable, but perhaps not the most meaningful stuff in the building — maybe there should be Good Will Hunting-style “problems of the week” or broader thought questions on the walls, or even really tangible examples of student work )(data-driven, etc.). I’m not saying this solves bigger problems, but it does put the school in a context of “we want to create thinkers who are proud of the work they do,” which seems like an important idea/lesson/mantra/etc.

4. Obviously (but sadly) school shootings are a thing, so there need to be safety ideas around the ability to auto-lock some doors, call 911 from a single swipe of something, etc. I would leave all that up to experts — and I do think if we start designing schools with these features in America, you’ll then see a rash of articles/features about how elementary schools are becoming military zones, which will freak people out — but I do think it’s important.

5. Honestly, throughout the course of much of human history, the two central gathering places for a community have been “church” and “school.” (Possibly “outdoor space of close proximity” or “supermarket” in the post-WW2 era would also qualify.) A church feels like a place you can go off-hours if need be; a school doesn’t, usually. There are obviously logistical implications to having a school operate 24-7, and/or even 15-5, but I think schools should be designed in such a way that the community — especially the troubled, off-task members of the community — feel like they can come there for some type of guidance / discussion / understanding of them / and maybe even to play some games. So like a central area somewhere (not the cafeteria) — perhaps a rotunda with natural light instead of an auditorium? I realize that sounds absolutely absurd when typed out, but if you want to foster the link between “community” and “school,” having a safe space would be a big step.

Again, I don’t design schools — nor do I manage the money that leads to the design of schools. So take everything above with a grain of salt (or a bushel). It’s just interesting that we’ve worried about the same things — connection to community, safety, projects, real learning — for years, but the actual physical space in which the learning takes place hasn’t really changed that much in the same time frame.

Ted Bauer


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