Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 in Review

As the year comes to a close I thought it might be interesting to look back and see what progress there has been in creating better schools for students.  This is no easy task since there is no definitive way to measure such a thing, but there is some anecdotal evidence we might consider.

First of all, the economy has been murder.  Many states are allocating capital funds for operations leaving school construction out in the cold.  Where construction is funded locally, there have been far fewer bond and capital levy elections than in the recent past, and where there has been elections many measures have failed.  the third leg of this crooked stool is the decline in property values.  In California, as in many states, property values have plummetted with the result being that school districts can't legally sell the bonds their voters approved!  This is because the lower property values have caused districts to exceed their statutory debt limits and until values go up, or bonds are paid off, they can't legally sell more bonds.

On the operations side administrators and teachers have been laid off so class sizes are getting larger. Fewer classes and electives are being offered.  Schools are not being maintained, and tech upgrades have been postponed. 

Even with all of this there actually is some news that helps to ameliorate these trends.  The Feds have pumped billions into schools through Race to the Top, assuming your state was one of the ones selected for the program.  The Feds have also made loans available and provided money to "fix-up" schools - more on this later. 

Some states have passed bonds even if these are not in the quantity that existed in the past.  See: http://www.schoolconstructionnews.com/articles/2010/03/19/voters-pass-466-billion-in-school-improvement-plans  (Note that most of the money described in this article is emergency supplemental operating funds not capital dollars)

What I wonder though is why more schools, districts, and states haven't used these terrible conditions to rethink the way they go about the business of building and operating schoolsFederal money helps, but spending money to fix-up "bad schools" does not seem like the best of investments.  It certainly makes sense to spend the money on "warm, safe, and dry" but spending money that avoids change only perpetuates archaic practices.  Similarly, overcrowding of schools could be an opportunity to change the way you teach.  Why not enlist students in class to help teach those who need more help?  Both the students helping and those being helped would benefit. You might need to rearrange the classroom to do this but that's a good thing.  What about using online learning more robustly?  It is growing by leaps and bounds and has real potential to enhance in class teaching in a blended learning environment.  Some districts and schools are trying these approaches and succeeding, but its a big job. 

2010 was a tough year but there are hopeful signs.  The Christmas shopping season was positive,  the commercial sector is showing some life, and the stock markets are up.  Looking ahead to 2011, all of us who care about the environments in which our children learn need to continue our advocacy and spread the word that the environment you learn in is important.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

But isn't it more expensive?

Today, in a podcast on American Radio Works, I was interviewed about our winning entry in Slate Online Magazines competition to reimagine the American classroom. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/podcast.html  I wrote about this a few weeks ago on this Blog and since that time the discussions have been pretty interesting.

The one comment that sticks with me is: "But isn't it more expensive"?  I am currently in the process of pricing the design to compare it to a "standard classroom" to really answer this question, and will post my findings here once that process is complete.  What strikes me though is the implication that we can't possibly consider spending anything greater than the least amount possible on our kids.  I don't think the 5th Grade Exploration Studio will prove to cost very much more than a standard classroom but what if it did?

Times are rough right now but people still want what's best for their children.  They will buy them the best clothes, toys, and games they can afford.  they will get them the best medical care and do all that they can for their safety and welfare.  That's why it puzzles me that people seem to balk at the cost of giving their children a good school environment.

The 5th Grade Exploration Studio is a design that is flexible enough to allow learners to learn in different ways and for teachers to try many different approaches.  The teacher in the podcast, Trish Fineran, thought it was a better approach to classroom design.  If this were to be slightly more costly  (and I am not at all sure that it will be) would we throw it out because of a small incremental cost?  To me this is like making the choice to buy something that doesn't meet your needs because its cheaper. 

As the old adage goes: "you get what you pay for."

Friday, December 3, 2010

What can a Virtual Museum tell us about virtual schools?

I discovered the Adobe Virtual Museum the other day and after tooling around in it for awhile began to think about what it might tell us about schools.  If you haven't tried the link be patient, the download times are long but it is quite interesting.  I especially recommend watching the video on the creation of the building.

The Adobe Virtual Museum only exists in cyberspace and is dedicated to showing digital art.  What is fascinating is that the creators felt the need to create a digital building to house the digital art.  What this tells me is that"place" is important.  Humans want to have some sort of corporeal connection to places where transactions occur.  The museum creators seemed to think this was true of museums and I would be willing to bet its true for most people undertaking most activities.

But wait!  When you visit the exhibits in the virtual museum they are disconnected from the digital building that houses them.  They could exist and be accessed without the building.  I don't know if this is a flaw in the concept or if, because the museum is new, they haven't connected the art to the virtual space as they say was their intent in the video.

Will simulations of this sort be more and more ubiquitous in the future?  Will people be satisfied with viewing art and architecture virtually.  Can we create virtual spaces that satisfy the need for place in human transactions?

These are all interesting questions when you think about how schools might deal with these phenomenon.  Students who grow up using technology to communicate seamlessly and who are very comfortable in the virtual worlds of video games and movies may become equally comfortable in socializing in virtual space especially as technology continues to improve.  When and if this comes to pass students will have fewer reason to go to a physical location for learning.  If they can learn at their own pace, studying what interests them, get expert real time help, and connect with their friends virtually, while still having all the comforts of home (or the local coffee shop) why go to a brick and mortar school? 

The question really comes down to: What degree can virtual reality replace reality for students?  Perhaps only time will tell.  Check out the museum at:  Adobe Virtual Museum

Monday, November 29, 2010

Interesting article in the Economist on how Michael Grove wants to change how and what schools teach.

One idea -  that trainee teachers spend more time in schools might have a downside in that the trainees might learn bad habits instead of good ones.  As I talk to colleges of education about how they train teachers, some already place them in operating schools.  This can be good for learning the tools of the trade, but also imbues teachers with a fixed idea of the spaces they will need to deal with when they are teaching.  In general they learn to "overcome" their environment and yet at the same time are unwilling to see it changed very much when we as architects recommend changes. 

I find that experienced teachers tend to resist change in their environments in part because they learned how to teach in a classroom that is focused on them as the givers of knowledge.  As architects we are told by educational reformers that this must change.  Student centered learning with teacher as facilitator is where we need to go.  Project based learning, collaboration, and personalized learning are hallmarks of such environments and the reasons to go in this direction seem compelling. Yet, when we suggest this to many teachers they resist any change that might alter the way they go about their business.

Will placing trainee teachers with more experienced teachers prevent changes that improve the teaching environment as an undesirable side effect?

 At the chalkface - The Economist November 27th, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

5th Grade Exploration Studio

The votes are in.  Slate's call for entries to reimagine the 5th grade classroom is complete and our entry has been declared the winner. 

You can read more here:
The Winner in Slate's Contest to Reinvent the American Classroom

This is our entry into Slate On-line magazine's call for the 5th grade classroom of the future.  It is one of 10 finalists.  Viewing this on the Slate site is difficult so I have included it here on my Blog.  Here is a description of our entry:

Kids learn in different ways and at different paces so their place of learning must be personalized, yet flexible enough that they can explore many different roads to learning.  They must be able to gain foundational knowledge but must also learn to work alone, work in groups, cooperate with others, and use modern tools to acquire knowledge.  They need the ability to connect to the world and to the environment to become responsible citizens.
The 5th Grade Exploration Studio allows a variety of learning to take place and is flexible enough to be physically transformed on a regular basis by students and teachers.  Each student has a home base organized into 6 student learning teams. The teams are separated with a low partition allowing the teacher to see all stations at all times.  Each student has a computer with internet access and each team shares a common area that allows them to work alone, work together on projects, and view web and video content from their stations.  The ends of the central stations have a round collaboration table with a large flat screen monitor to allow even more flexibility in how teams collaborate.
The entire class shares a central project area in their studio that is equipped with a variety of seating and work surface choices.  This area contains a wet area with 2 sinks for science and art projects, as well as adjustable height tables, tables for group projects, and soft seating for informal discussions or private reading.  A large “smart board” computer screen between the sinks along the window wall can be used for student presentations, lectures by the teacher, or to connect to other classes in other parts of the world via Skype or similar programs.
Arranged around the perimeter of the room, the student stations and computer screens can be seen by the teacher at a glance from the center of the room.  Mirrors placed behind the computer screens and tilted up slightly allow teacher and student to make eye contact without the need for the student to turn around.
The room is long and shallow in the shape of a trapezoid.  This shape helps acoustics by reducing reflected sounds and creates a base location for the teacher.  The narrow classroom allows natural light from the windows to penetrate deep into the room. The studio is connected to other studios not with a corridor, but with a shared project/large group area equipped with a variety of seating, tables, kitchenettes, and with light wells to allow plenty of daylight into the space.  The Studio is separated from this project are with a glass wall that folds out of the way to create an even larger space.
The Exploration Studio does not stop at the exterior walls, but extends to the out of doors where a covered plaza equipped with freeze proof sink and work bench allows outdoor experimentation.  On one side a door and windows connects students to the exterior, while on the other side a roll-up glass garage door can be opened on nice days allowing class activities to spill out to the exterior.  A story telling circle and a garden for growing food nudge into a natural landscape which includes native vegetation and a water course so students can study their environment.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Box Pavilion
I came across this rather interesting construction by architecture students in Germany. See the link for more photos.  I am not sure if those are beer cases or milk cases but given it's in Germany, beer seems likely. Yet another example of creativity combined with powerful graphic tools that help us realize our conceptions.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cool Schools

Orestad College (High School)
Here is a very innovative high school that was part of a presentation I gave at the Washington State Chapter CEFPI Conference in June of 2010.  This Danish school has an innovative building with an innovative organization.  It was the result of a design competition.

Introducing School Design Matters

I am starting the Blog: "School Design Matters" to further the discussion of what school design can do to enhance teaching and learning.  I am an architect and  planner who has been planning and designing schools for the last 25 years.  Over that time I have seen the design quality of schools improve significantly, while planning concepts for schools have hardly changed at all.   Now I am focused on thinking and writing about the forces that prevent change, and also those that may drive change in the future.  I hope you will comment on what you see here and become engaged in a discussion that raises awareness about how school environments affect learning.