I've been submerged in a mass of interesting work on the design of learning spaces for a long time. From the physical space of the Millennium Dome to the virtual spaces of Oracle's Think.com, Campus 2000, SchoolNet and so on.
This short piece appeared in a new publication, the Building Schools Journal and is, I hope, a useful contribution.
I will shortly (I promise) be putting up a whole heap of useful materials for those engaged in the whole task of building learning spaces for the future.
Throughout 2004 I was tasked by CABE and RIBA to research the answer to a simple question. “What does learning look like in the future, and are we designing the right buildings to contain it? The question has some urgency underpinning it. In the UK in 2005 one new school will open every four days and the pace does not diminish beyond that. Building the wrong school every four days would amount to a national catastrophe. The transformation of learning through the re-design of the building stock ought to be one of the design challenges of our times. So... what was the answer to the research question?:
Firstly it is important to understand why the buildings need to change at all. Surely a quick makeover of existsing stock, an injection of technology, some rebranding and a sympathetic landscaping would suffice? Sadly not; the drivers of change impacting on our learning environments are complex and considerable:
There are social pressures as the school becomes increasingly open to the breakfast clubs and after school activities driven by parents caught up in the long hours of the UK's 21st century working ethic. Designing a lunch hall for 900 that doubles as a breakfast home for 100 is not trivial. Secondly teaching and learning are both changing in a number is significant ways. For example it is clear that children learning with rich new media, including the internet, become focussed and engaged in a way that results in them moving less and in some schools studied this movement reduction was very substantial indeed. The debate around school design focussed historically on the need to move children efficiently, without pressure or stress, around the school; cue debate about school corridors, passing places, social interaction "lay-bys" and the rest. But, in a world where the learners move a lot less, corridor free schools are being build and, unsurprisingly, the gains include discipline as the archtypal "naughty child circulating on the corridors" vanishes. Today, ideal class sizes vary from the "performance" lecture delivered to a large group to the intimacy of a tutorial or seminar. This can't be achieved with a simple count (enough little rooms, enough big rooms.. etc), but can only be delivered through genuinely agile design.
Another driver is changing school organisation. In a post "Tomlinson Report" world, and in a world where the guiding philosophy is "every child matters" we will most certainly see children moving freely between institutions. A short summary might be that back in the postwar baby boom years, when we had too many children, wasting a few didn't matter and our focus was on the institutions tasked with managing the explosion in learner numbers. That institution centric world has given way to a learner centric one as children become scarce and the needs of the economy become ever more demanding in terms of the skills and capabilities required of them. New fashions in teaching appear too, but these days they are backed by careful research. A trend of performance enhanced science teaching is sweeping in from eastern Europe where is is closing gender gaps and accelerating the understanding of science. In architectural terms the UK science lab is probably the last place to find good performance space and it can be seen that a lack of design anticipation can seriously damage our ability to hold a place in the pecking order of world learning.
Many schools worldwide are revisiting their organisational assumptions. Casualties of that re-examination include horizontal structuring of the learners and subject groupings. Many schools are finding that vertical organisation, with mixed age teaching and house systems rather than year groups deliver a more challenging learning environment as the youngsters chase down the role model of older learners who in turn reinforce their own understandings by helping teach and guide younger learners. Brave schools like the Australian School of Maths an SCience newly opened in Adelaide, or Chafford Hundred school in the UK's Thurrock are finding that abandoning subject groups makes great sense too. What is the point of training biologists and technologists when the world is crying out for bio-technologists?
Obviously, technology is evolving rapidly too. In many UK schools, the "computer suite" with its fixed rows of CRT monitors and fan cooled, noisy, CPUs already looks like an inflexible dinosaurs alongside the freedom and flexibility that schools are finding with portable and wireless technology. The computer suite is dead. In Scotland the 2001 School Census showed that the target ratio of 1 "modern computer" for every 5 pupils had been achieved a year early, but by 2005 it is clear that the future will be much more complex that just computers per leaner as phones, newly-smart-TVs, laptops and whiteboards make their own seductive contributions. One horror story emerging from the research was that, whereas lighting and mains is designed in at the architectural stage, ICT typically goes into new schools with the curtains resulting in a tragic web of tacky conduit and unlikely plug locations. Why?
So what of design processes? One certainty that emerged in every country studied was this: if children and teachers are involved in the design of their own learning environments, then performance will improve even where the design is poor. Where design is excellent performance will be stellar in its improvement. Their advice is powerful, but their reflection starts a process of meta-reflection about teaching and learning that is itself a key catalyst. Asked about the design failures of his school one truculent 15 year old reported that "the trouble with the design is that noone around here knows how good we are". As ever, learners make you think a bit, don't they?
© Stephen Heppell 2005, © BBC 1995