FADS, FANCIES AND FANTASIES

The opportunity to view the complex processes of school planning, design and construction through a number of different lenses provides a unique perspective. Taken together, my experience as a teacher (“living” in the space); principal (“leading” in the space); superintendent (“visioning” the space); consultant (“planning” the space); professor (“researching” the space) and architectural jurist (“evaluating” the space) suggests for dialog and discussion a number of opportunities and challenges available to educational professionals, design and construction professionals, and the community of learners.

In spite of my many roles related to educational facilities, first and foremost is that of educator; second is that of owner. These roles yield two well-defined positions. First, as educator, every discussion concerning educational facilities (indeed, all of education) should begin and end with questions such as“How is this good for kids?” or“Why is this good for kids?” Second, as owner, the primary question is “What do I have when all of the design and construction professionals leave?” It is in the context of these roles that my remarks are grounded.

Building Schools Without Building Curriculum and Instruction

If a facility project is to house an educational program that reflects the status quo, then educators need to do little more than occupy the newly built or newly renovated spaces and begin instruction. However, if a goal is to change the paradigm of education in a particular school district, then the accomplishment of that goal will not be realized by only creating modern, state-of-the-art schools.

Parallel to the design and construction of the facility must be a focused, intense and purposeful effort on the part of educational community to consider revision of curriculum and instruction. The day a school district opens the doors of a facility is not the day to consider the educational implications of how the facility will be used. Aligning curriculum, instruction and assessment with standards, and determining how these alignments will function operationally in the facility, is a series of intellectually challenging and labor-intensive activities that require input from and participation by members of the educational community.

Green School Rating Systems

Green schools rating systems had a role in creating an awareness of criteria by which to conceptualize, design and build sustainable facilities.

In the infancy of sustainable design and construction, these systems provided both a communication vehicle and an assessment tool. To those ends, these rating systems were exceptional. However, as the movement toward sustainable design advances and becomes more sophisticated, is there utility in beginning and ending dialog about sustainable schools with “What rating will the completed facility achieve?” Are decisions made that “get or do not get points” rather than simply designing and building “green” because the act in itself may be worthy? The point here is that an all-or-none mentality concerning sustainable school design is becoming evident and may be detrimental to the movement.

It may be time to talk about a continuum, where the idea of “greenish” schools becomes a valuable end goal in itself, absent the ability of owners and design professionals to achieve locally some unattainable external rating. If we want the next generation of children to grow into adulthood and seriously consider conservation and ecology, then it is necessary, but not sufficient, to only teach these ideas. The purpose and logic of educating children in sustainable learning environments goes beyond merely housing children in “rated” spaces.

Educational Facility Research: “If We Build It, They Will Achieve.”

There is an increase in the volume of discussion concerning a causal relationship between educational facilities and student achievement. While there is promising research on specific elements of the facility (for example acoustics or lighting) and student achievement, the larger question of the totality of the educational facilities and measured learning remains elusive.

Based on the discipline of argumentation and critical thinking, the “if . . . then” statement of facilities and achievement can be associated with at least two fallacies of reasoning. The first fallacy is (pardon the Latin) post hoc ergo prompter hoc or a specific kind of false cause fallacy arguing that because one event preceded another event, the first event must have caused the second event. In English, this fallacy translates into “We built a $30-million school, and just look at these first-year-of-occupancy achievement scores!” A related fallacy is “complex cause,” which is a specific type of false cause that involves mistakenly attributing the cause of an event to a simple cause when the cause is more complex.

Learning is a complex process of acquiring knowledge, skills, attitudes, habits and tendencies (to list but a few) through experience and practice that varies with different persons at different stages in their lives. Considering that educational facilities may be a causal factor in learning and achievement is a worthy research question. However, studies where research conclusions are based on statistical methodologies that are limited only to association or relationship (for example correlation and regression) fall sadly short of the mark. Unless and until researchers begin to consider sophisticated quantitative methods such as exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis with multiple levels of variables, taken together with sound qualitative research methods, hypotheses involving facilities and achievement will remain inadequately evaluated.

Educational Facility Research: Measurement of Change

The generation of drivers who learned to drive before and during 1950s often balked at wearing seat belts and railed at the laws that mandated the practice. The generation of drivers from the 1960s forward began to wear seat belts and now, while the practice is not universal, it is a rare event when one sees a driver or passenger not securely strapped in. This anecdote suggests the power of time (traffic fines-not-with-standing) in understanding change in society. Educational facilities may have the power to invoke change. But many changes in human behavior take time, and to consider change requires measurement through time. Research designs that ignore this reality can be more susceptible to the multitude of errors that render the research useless and cause decisions to be erroneously made (or erroneously not made).

The technical processes of longitudinal research create the operational methods by which to achieve this end. “Quick and dirty” studies may provide fodder for publications, but do little to advance knowledge.

The Too-Often-Absent, Post-Occupancy Evaluation

In education, the age of accountability produced high-stakes testing for students, teachers, principals and superintendents. We should add planners, architects and construction personnel to the list of accountable, education-related professionals. How to “measure” for accountability is at issue. Our first task then is to develop valid and reliable post-occupancy evaluation instruments. Then, let’s even advance the heretical idea of requiring an external post-occupancy evaluation before the final release of state funds to the school district and final payments to contracted facility providers. A number of issues support this contention. If we are really serious about the idea of appropriately integrated facility planning, design and construction by educational professionals, design and construction professionals and the community of learners, then all have a stake (and responsibility) in producing a facility that does what it purports to do. Additionally, first-class planning, design and construction professionals suffer at the hands of those who are unwilling or unable to perform their respective tasks in a competent way. Perhaps valid, reliable and published post-occupancy evaluations would help school district officials make more informed choices involving those with whom they contract.

Limited Participation and Limited Function Planning Teams

On a middle school renovation project, a superintendent of schools was approached by the director of food service who had been asked to review the plans for the kitchen and cafeteria, but who had not been engaged in any predesign discussion. The food service director, carefully choosing her words, offered the observation that the designer was probably a “nice person,” but it was obvious that he had never cooked a meal. The superintendent wisely suggested that the director and cafeteria staff convene a meeting with the architect to reconsider the design and resubmit the plan. In the end, the architect and food service staff produced a design that efficiently and effectively met the needs of preparing meals and saved the district $25,000 in equipment costs. This anecdote has a satisfactory conclusion.

What is a concern are the number of such situations where plans are approved, construction completed and representatives of owners professionally “live” in spaces that do not adequately meet the needs of persons using the space. Inclusive planning across the conceptualization, design and construction phases yields greater potential for user buy-in, for cost savings and for the design and construction of more functional spaces.

The concepts of teaming, interdisciplinary units, brain-based learning, constructivist learning and the community of learners are found in the literature and practice of education. These terms may be as foreign to design and construction professionals as terms such as contract documents, ASHRAE standards or materials with low VOC content are to educators. Do we need to know and understand each others’ vocabulary and concepts in order to be successful — of course not. But without ongoing, two-way communication, complex ideas have no chance to be incorporated in the design or in the construction of the facility. The over-arching criterion in an educational facility project should be the continuous interaction between educational professionals, design and construction professionals and the community of learners. If educators are not involved in conceptualizing and planning, even the most well-intended design may be wasted.

What Does One Educator Hope For?

A perfectly designed space would be a technology-rich (integrated, not fixed) environment where whole school, large group, small group, one-on-one and individual instruction takes place conscious of and responsive to individual differences, taking advantage of global, as well as local, opportunities for interactive, two-way communication and learning. It must also be responsive to the diversity of persons in the learning environment; respectful of the physical, economic, cultural and ecological environment; and where appropriate, learning can be measured, recorded and used to diagnose and guide future teaching and learning, as well a place where successes can be observed and celebrated. I see these qualities when I visit and when I evaluate schools. We just need more of these learning places.

Should any reader think I am unabashed and a disengaged critic of the complex field of educational facility planning, design and construction, please note the liberal use of the first person plural pronoun “we.” I am both inspired and encouraged by those facility-related activities where I observe, evaluate or participate. We have much to be proud of, but much more to achieve. The internal and external publics who use the new or renovated educational facilities conceptualized, designed and built (now and in the future) and the external publics who pay for these facilities demand and deserve excellence. I believe we are up to the task and only need to demonstrate continued and growing competence in our respective roles.

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