A Final Thought

You Need to Read This

Twenty years ago, a group of architects, educators and consultants gathered regularly, largely at meetings of the Northeast Region of the Council of Educational Planners, International (CEFPI), to talk about schools of the future and how they could be designed.

We took as our basic guideline the concepts discussed in “Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution,” published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. We looked at how facilities could be made or remade to support a new approach to education emphasizing individual and group study, making the teacher more of a mentor than a lecturer and, just beginning, how that thing called “technology” might fit into the future of education.

A key member of that group was a young architect who had worked in the New York City schools and who brought real-time experience with trying to change what existed and concepts and ideas about how to make things better. That member was Prakash Nair, who has emerged, with partner Randy Fielding, as the most important voice for constructing better schools everywhere in the world, including the United States.

Now Prakash has written a book, “Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning” (Harvard Education Press) showing specific, clear and inexpensive ways that existing and new school buildings can be designed to facilitate educational programs for the 21st Century. It’s a book that every school superintendent, principal and architect needs to read.

Prakash estimates that the United States has over $2 trillion of net worth tied up in its existing school facilities and points out that those buildings, created to house an educational program for the 19th and 20th centuries, effectively stand in the way of what he considers true 21st-Century educational goals and techniques.

But those buildings exist, and are not going to be torn down and replaced. And so, in this “Blueprint for Tomorrow,” Prakash spends less time describing how new schools might be designed and instead concentrates on what can be done to existing ones to make them better able to serve students over the next 30 to 50 years. His focus is less on buildings and more on pieces.

Thus, he looks at school entrances and suggests ways they can become more welcoming. Likewise, he calls for more socialization space in the schools and fewer corridors. In a section on labs, studios and do-it-yourself spaces, Prakash illustrates how corridors can be opened and become part of the classroom, how spaces can be changed from classrooms to instructional space for larger and smaller groups. He shows specific examples of how the outdoors can be used as teaching spaces and even brought into the school.

It’s all exciting space — kind of “gee whiz, I wish we could do that” space — and it would be wonderful if all his ideas could be adopted and implemented right now. But, Prakash adds a very important caveat: Unless teachers, administrators (and parents) buy in to the idea of a new approach to teaching and learning in the 21st Century, the new spaces he conceives will fail.

It’s happened before. Sixty years ago, open schools were the rage. Schools were designed with few, if any, walls and teachers and students were plunged into wide open spaces where they tried to teach in the same way they had taught in closed classrooms. It did not take long for furniture to be used to close the spaces, and for administrators to ask architects how the space could be reconfigured to provide good old-fashioned, closed-in classrooms. The problem was not with the spaces; the problem was that teachers had not learned to use and share the space, had not been convinced to change from lecturing to directing, helping and challenging students to work on their own or in groups.

Prakash makes it very clear that in bringing school buildings into the 21st Century, it is important to bring teachers, administrators and parents, along, too. As he says, in reference to a conversion of four classrooms into a large learning lab, “this space is designed for a specific group of teachers” who wanted a space where they could work collaboratively “to deliver courses that would be impossible to deliver in their traditional classrooms.” It’s not just a change in architecture; it’s a change in teaching and learning philosophy and one cannot go ahead successfully without the other.

This book should be read by anyone planning new facilities or changing them in existing schools. You do not have to do everything Prakash suggests — you do not even have to agree with his overall approach — but if you are open to change, you will find many ideas that you can implement and that will result in better opportunities for your students and their teachers.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at intelled@aol.com.

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