Wednesday, June 20, 2012

10 Current School Facility Features that are Obsolete

I have been out of the blogosphere for the last few months but an interesting article has come to my attention that I think is worth talking about.  It’s an older article on the great blog Mind/Shift: “21 Things That Will Be Obsolete by 2020” by Shelly Blake-Plock.
These are school related things and it got me to thinking about how many school facility “things” are obsolete today and yet are still in wide use.  These are not facility features in decades old crumbling schools; rather they are features that are frequently included in new schools today.  In no particular order these are:
1.     Departmental Organizations

In order to break down the size of schools and to allow students to learn across the curriculum it is essential to organize schools so that teachers of various subjects are located together.  This not only emulates how people work today – in collaborative groups – but encourages teachers to consider students holistically, not only as they perform in a specific subject.  Yet there are hundreds of new schools being designed and built with this obsolete organization.

2.     Learning in prescribed spaces

When you ask people to remember a meaningful learning experience from high school, chances are the experience they recall did not take place in a space designed for learning.  Learning outside, while working in groups, while on a trip, while doing a project or learning while talking with friends are all informal experiences people cite as meaningful learning experiences.  We don’t design schools to accommodate these activities; instead we only focus on the formal spaces.  This is obsolete thinking.

At Northern Beaches Christian
School students learn everywhere
3.     School Corridors

Corridors take up a lot of valuable real estate in a school and are unoccupied most of the time.  If we change the way we circulate in schools by changing the rooms we circulate to we can greatly reduce or eliminate corridors.  If rooms are arranged in groups around a common space corridors are not necessary.  If you do have corridors why not make them informal learning spaces as well.  A straight shot double loaded corridor is obsolete yet many new schools are planned around these.
Corridors at Machias Elementary are used for informal learning

4.     Traditional School Libraries

In a modern school a library should be more of a learning commons able to support a variety of student activities as they learn to access and evaluate information.  Books have their place but they are not the end-all of libraries.  A learning commons is no longer the quiet sanctum of old, rather it is a space that can be central or distributed, used formally or informally, and one that can stimulate a spirit of inquiry in students.

5.     Computer labs

Students are connected to the net everywhere except in school.  We force them to power down and disconnect and put them in obsolete computer labs.  Not every student can afford a personal device but many schools are getting around this by issuing I-pods or by allowing students to use computers around the school.  A modern school needs to have connectivity everywhere and treat computers more like pencils (albeit valuable ones) than microscopes.
Students usingmobile phones in class

6.     Gyms without Natural Daylight

A typical refrain you hear when designing a gym is that glare is such a big problem that we don’t want natural light.  It’s true that glare is a problem if you have poorly conceived natural light but with energy costs what they are, being able to turn off lights in a gym can be a big savings.  Designing glare free gyms is possible but typically requires more natural light not less.  Skylights, well placed windows and ample light produce a great experience and a functional space.

7.     Teacher Centered Classrooms

Classrooms were designed for lecture and crowd control with the teacher as the central figure of knowledge and authority.  The teacher had knowledge to impart through direct instruction and the classroom works pretty well for this. Teacher at the front controlling the board with a good view of the room - has been the model for over 150 years.  Today this is still the case with the chalk board replaced by the “Smart Board.”  This is an obsolete notion.  There are times when lecture is the right approach but now there are so many other approaches that center on the student.  Small groups, project work, problem solving, presentations are all activities that don’t work as well in a teacher centered classroom.
Learner Centered Classroom at Riverview Elementary School

8.     Isolated Classrooms

Tony Wagner of the Harvard School of Education and the author of the Global Achievement Gap says: “Isolation is the enemy of improvement” and yet most schools are planned so as to isolate teachers from each other.  Teachers often learn to teach in isolated boxes and emulate that style throughout their career.  Interior windows get “papered over” and blinds are shut.  Out of school people work in teams to solve problems.  They are visually and often aurally connected.  Collaboration is a vital skill.  Isolated classrooms are already obsolete.

9.     Institutional Food Service

School food service usually involves folding tables that are placed and replaced throughout the day.  With cleanup activities it takes the commons/cafeteria out of action most of the day.  Why sacrifice this valuable space when it could serve multiple purposes? Creating spaces that require less movement of furniture while remaining flexible will allow them to be used more effectively.  Commons spaces can also be less institutional which in turn increases their flexibility.  Decentralizing food service allows students to eat in smaller groups and also allows multiuse of spaces.  Even if the food isn’t better, the space can be.
Food Service in this Helsinki middle school is more like a cafe

10.  Large Gang Restrooms

Statistics show that a surprising number of students try to avoid using school restrooms even in new schools.  Concerns over privacy, bullying, and cleanliness contribute to this.  To avoid restroom use, students stop drinking water.  Without water they become dehydrated.  When dehydrated their learning suffers – with performance degrading by 10-15%.  There is an alternative.  In Finland and other parts of Europe they use individual restrooms that are located in the shared learning area between classrooms.  Although it may sound funny there is a feeling of ownership for these and so they don’t get trashed, they do have privacy, there is no bullying, students do drink water, they do not get dehydrated and they do achieve.

These are a few of the things that are obsolete.  Can you think of more?

Monday, January 30, 2012


Alabama spends less, so do Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Massachusetts.  Ohio spends $8 more, but Wisconsin, Arizona and Virginia spend less.  In fact, 33 out of the 50 states and District of Columbia spend less.  Some big rich states like New York, Texas, California and Florida spend more, but surprisingly, the biggest spenders are Wyoming and DC. 

According to the February 6th, 2012 issue of Time Magazine, $1,092 is the amount the average US worker spends on coffee each year.   I like coffee as much as the next person.  In fact, people worry if I don’t get my coffee in the morning.  I like straight forward coffee, that is, I like it black without sugar.  I do indulge the fact that I spend a lot of my time in Seattle – coffee town USA and home of Starbucks – by ordering quad Americanos, but I eschew more extravagant and expensive coffee drinks.  I do not know how much I spend on coffee, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I spend at least $1,092.  Many people I know have several coffees a day and likely spend more than I do.  How much do you think you spend?

But this post isn’t about coffee, is it?

The 21st Century School Fund just published a report on capital construction spending in every state and the District of Columbia.  It ranks the states by how much they spend per student.  The range of expenditure ranges from a high of $2,355 per student in DC (Wyoming is second at $2,066) to a low of $298 per student in Hawaii. The study gives additional information such as how much the state contributes versus local school districts, how funding occurs in each state, and how much debt for capital construction is outstanding in each state. 

There are, of course, regional variations in construction costs that explain some of the difference, but the variation across the country makes a statement about both economic health and the value each state places on building schools.  I think it also goes further than this to make a statement about how we value education.  The facilities in which students learn go far beyond just providing shelter for the activities of learning.  Fundamentally, they tell students and teachers how we value what they do.  We build palaces for our sports teams often at public expense because we value sports in our culture.  We spend money on our military facilities because they are important.  We select our homes with the idea of maximizing space and utility but also to make a statement about our status and values.  The physical manifestation of our stadiums and homes reflect our values.  Why should the physical manifestations of our schools be any different? 

If we are serious about improving results in our schools, part of the solution is to let students know that we value learning and the places that house it.  The condition of our schools sends students a message, and whether that message is positive or negative is up to us.

$1,092 is a lot of money to a lot of people, especially in this economy.  Having the little pleasures that get us through each day is important, but aren’t student’s futures even more important than our daily dose of coffee? 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Great Article on Education in Korea

The December 17th issue of the Economist paints an interesting picture of what high stakes testing has done to kids in South Korea in the article: “The one-shot society”.  Rather than focus on hagwon or cram factories like the Time magazine article, The Economist piece discusses the one high stakes test that determines every student’s future.  It goes on to explain how the Korean government and economy encourages this testing by their hiring practices and in so doing discourages innovation and risk taking.  Finally it covers the increasing dissatisfaction of students in South Korea with the pressure to succeed.
Korea does very well on international exams, but at what price?  The level of dissatisfaction in
South Korea is very high.  According to the article less than half of Korean workers would recommend their company as a good place to work whereas three quarters of workers in the article’s global sample would.  Women feel pressure to work and raise a family, but they veer off the advancement pathway if they take time away from work to do so.  The result has been a plummeting birthrate that threatens to leave an older generation unsupported and leave South Korea irrelevant as a global power.
If nothing else, this analysis shows that you need to be careful what you wish for.  South Korea has achieved on tests and graduates an astounding 63% of its students with college degrees but life satisfaction is low and unemployment is relatively high.  Even though South Korea grew by 6.2% last year, 40% of college graduates had not found work four months after graduation.
When you review the kinds of schools that most South Koreans attend they look very similar to the kinds of schools prevalent in the United States.  The desks are in rows, the teacher is lecturing at from the front of the room, and students are madly taking notes except for the one who are asleep.  The classroom environment is perfect for this. Those motivated to pay attention are memorizing material through their note taking.  Those who learn differently or would prefer to talk about their learning in groups aren’t doing so well.  If not asleep they are daydreaming, or drawing or taking notes ineffectually.  The high stakes test will weed these “laggards” out, but in so doing may miss the creative genius, the orator, the musician, or the next high tech entrepreneur.
This picture is too true of many schools in the United States.  Some schools in the US are more innovative than this to be sure, and there are signs of change, but we need the system to change to show the progress we say we want.  The school environment can be an important part of that change.  By creating spaces that foster collaboration, creativity, and communication we can help educators and students teach and learn in new ways.  A space that is configured for small groups but can be changed to create large spaces for gatherings or projects, or a space that allows comfortable seating in a variety of lounging and formal configurations helps change the way teaching and learning happens.  It can help wake up the sleeping kids and turn daydreaming into productive reality.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This is a big number.  It’s over a third of the TARP bailout fund.  It’s a little over a third of what we spend on Medicare and Medicaid.  It also about 42% of what we spend on Defense.  What this number is is 2% of our Gross Domestic Product. 
This is a significant number in that it represents education spending, and is what parents in the United States would collectively need to spend if they wanted to match parents in South Korea.  But this is not the cost of education in Korea.  No, 2% of GDP is the cost Korean parents are willing to pay for after school tutoring for their children over and above what the country spends on education.  In the States we spend about $625B on K-12 education now so spending another $290B would amount to almost a 50% increase in expenditures.  This sort of increase is unimaginable and yet our educational system continues to be excoriated over the results it produces while no one is willing to spend more for better results.
Time magazine talks about this in Their December 5th issue in the article: “Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone”,9171,2094427,00.html which paints a startling, and perhaps frightening, picture of where teaching to the test can lead.  Students and parents are so concerned about performance on high stakes testing that they spend many hours and dollars on tutoring.  It has gotten to the point that the South Korean government raids “hagwons” or cram schools that operate after 10:00 PM in an attempt to break this obsession with cramming for the test.
This obsession with achievement is telling in two ways: 
1.       South Korea is always near the top of the OECD PISA scores and
2.       South Korea is trying to break the addiction of teaching to the test in order to ensure that its students are competitive in the future
In fact South Korea and other Asian countries that are top scorers on the PISA tests are concerned that they are turning out knowledgeable but dull students.  Students who know facts but have not been taught to apply what they know in creative ways.  Believe it or not, many Asian countries are looking to US schools as an example of how to better teach creativity to their students which they know is key to success in the 21st century. 
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted"                                                                                                    Albert Einstein

The PISA tests may be measuring knowledge but the knowledge they are measuring may not be what’s important for success in the 21st Century.  In the meantime, the United States is moving toward the Asian model and increasingly teaching to the test which has the potential to harm the acquisition of the very skills our students will need to succeed in the future. 

What’s all this got to do with school facilities?  To me it reinforces the need to create facilities that encourage both academic rigor and creativity.  When America finally wakes up from its testing obsession schools need to be able to accommodate curricula that encourage creativity and the use and analysis of knowledge.  This is likely to mean project based learning, collaborative learning, and technology rich learning.  Learning that encourages exploration and analysis, critical thinking and debate.  Facilities that accommodate these endeavors will not be desks in rows but rather agile spaces that can change as do the activities of their occupants.  Facilities that show that education is valuable and a priority.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons from School design in the UK

Does architecture matter for learning?
Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid

This past week I was in London for the Annual CAE conference.  Every few years the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education has a conference outside the United States, and this year it was in conjunction with the BCEF - British Council for Educational Facilities.  We saw some interesting schools and also some that made me question why they were on the tour.  Presentations covered sustainability and a little bit about pedagogy and the built environment, but the conference seemed to be under the cloud created by the drastic reduction in the Building Schools for the Future building program in the UK.  This £55 Billion program was the creation of the last liberal government but has been drastically reduced by the current conservative government.  In general, the British architects and builders who were at the conference still seemed to be getting their heads around the fact that the ambitious building program was essentially over.
This made it all the more interesting that one of the key note speakers was Graham Stuart an MP, Conservative Party member, and Chair of the Education Select Committee for the new government. Considering he was addressing a group of architects and builders who focus on building schools, his pronouncement that school environments are inconsequential compared to the quality of teaching was stunning.  He said the last government had wasted a lot of money on some schools thereby depriving other needy areas from getting any help.   He said he knew of no credible research that demonstrated that the school environment affected learning.  He was vehement in these beliefs and went unchallenged except for Alan Dunlop, a Scotsman and recent Visiting Chair in Architecture at Kansas State University, who suggested that although teaching is most important, the environment is also an important component in learning.  The MP would not grant this point in the sense that he said the focus must be on teaching.
This is an argument I have heard before in the United States in various guises.  I believe that teaching is the most important thing but not the only thing.  Environment matters.  A good environment attracts teachers and students, allows them to do their jobs more efficiently, and tells them they are valued.  This is no different for teaching and learning than it is for any other kind of endeavor.  Human activities benefit from purpose built environments designed to house them.
These benefits might be considered “higher order” benefits but research has shown (see Earthman’s work at: that even improving bad environments improves student performance.  The significance of this is that even with bad teaching students will do better in a good environment. 
Times are very difficult right now and educational providers are being forced to cut back severely.   Prioritization is necessary in times like these but denial of evidence to justify priorities is bad policy.  Solving the problems we face will require cooperation and new thinking.  Einstein said:
We need new thinking about how to deliver, pay for, and accomplish the mission of educating our children if we want to solve our current problems.