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  This is obsolete thinking.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  A straight shot double loaded corridor is obsolete yet many new schools are planned around these.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?


  1. Firstly, I should start by congratulating you on the blog and its ideas. I wonder how many of these issues arise out of the education system that a school operates in? If we are working on a system that has its roots in the Victorian age, are we likely to continue making these design choices rather than not? As I tell my English students sitting for the HSC in NSW, where in your working life are you going to be asked to respond to an unseen question, write in 40 minutes, by hand, without access to any resources, as a "first" draft?
    The ICT area is changing so much, but if you are in a position where the bricks and mortar are so "solid", does this hamper the ability for schools, on limited (and often government imposed) budgets, to break out of a cycle predicated on a model over 150 years old?

  2. One of my concerns as a teacher nearing the end of a 31-year-career is the usefulness of these buildings 30 and 40 or more years down the line. These spaces, obviously, are huge and often sit on very valuable land. I try to imagine the building constructed in 2010 as it may be used in 2050. An interesting challenge....

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