“Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.” Lewis Mumford
A two day MoE conference on designing 21st Century learning environments is making me wonder what schools would be like if we followed Mumford and created educational spaces for lovers and friends rather than (21st Century) learners. How would our design principles change? How would schools change?
Schools are not very human spaces. They are built with the large group in mind. The schools I work in are all variations on a generic theme. Each school architect choosing to cover the site in 35 kid classroom spaces linked by corridors and opening every now and again into shared common spaces for reading, sport, drama, dance, singing, and gathering en masse for messages from the leader. Spaces for toileting, and benches for outside eating are tacked on as an afterthought. And meeting the needs of the 21st Century learner seems to rely heavily on tweaking these existing environments by putting in wireless networking and interactive whiteboards and letting students use mobile phones in school.
When students are on site schools often seem overfull. Moving around the site at the change of periods and lunch breaks as great jostle of kids surge out of these classroom spaces creating people jams in the corridors and student snarls in the walkways is not for the tentative or unstable.
The irony about surviving these over full moments in school is that over a year school spaces are more often empty of laughter, conversation and people than they are full. They are wasteful resource spaces. Even during the months that schools are open students and teachers do not choose to stick around in the spaces we create for learning, preferring to meet off site before and after school in the mixed activity spaces of the mall, a local café, the home of a friend.
For example, when it comes to that much MoE sought after goal of “establishing sustainable learning communities” the local Mt Eden coffee shop trumps anything I have seen in schools. It hosts so many early breakfast and after school conversations between students, educators from local schools and lecturers from the University of Auckland Epsom Campus that it would easily meet NZQA accreditation requirements as a registered education provider.
When school buildings are designed to accommodate learners rather than friends, we create both physical and social emotional barriers to community. We create the very problems that we hold edu_think tanks to try and solve.
Geetha Narayanan’s Project Vision’s Learning spaces made me realise that when we talk excitedly of creating “authentic tasks” to reconnect learners with the community we are trying to correct a problem that have purposely created – isolating learners from authenticity through our choice of school design and school location and then designing learning experiences to reconnect them – talk about busy work.
Which is why it continues to puzzle me that we adopt terms like “learning community” and “home group” into the expectations of education and at the same time plan for their failure - when the environments we provide, and the institutional hierarchies we create, fail to meet the most basic expectations of what is necessary for either community or home. And then we express surprise when the barriers we have built into the design of schools, mean that the “learning communities” and "home groups" fail to develop in a sustainable way.