A Space Odyssey: The Final Frontier for Schools?

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Key issues:

  1. Why space is important
  2. Approaches to space
  3. Space and schools
  4. Change models – it’s not just about the space

The rationale for space design in schools is quite simple: children are taught in groups of 30, 40 or 50. Such groups require separate spaces where teachers can teach and children learn. We call these spaces classrooms and their design has remained fairly constant for over a century.

What this means is that the model of learning has essentially remained unchanged also. Class sizes have come down over the past century but the model of learning remains the same with teachers instructing children within defined spaces. The implication here is that the teacher is the repository both of knowledge and the process of learning. The deficiencies of this approach are many. First the role of the teacher is set up largely as a medieval artisan, working independently and learning their ‘craft’ on the job over a long period of time. Learning appropriate classroom practice is something that is passed down often from older more successful practitioners. As such the profession is in many ways what the sociologist David Riesman called ‘tradition directed’ – we do this way because we have always done it this way. (See David Riesman: The Lonely Crowd)

Of course tradition directed cultural models have their advantages as Riesman points out: However they may also impede change.

Second, in this model the source of knowledge is forever mediated via the teacher. This reflects a reality throughout the majority of human history where knowledge has been a scarcity. Books were not in plentiful supply and specialist knowledge was particularly hard to get hold of outside university and specialist libraries. Within this formulation the teacher is the resident knowledge ‘expert.’

Third, teacher as artisan means that the work model within classrooms is essentially fixed. The teacher has no option but to perform all roles: purveyor of knowledge, coach, mentor, disciplinarian, analyst, mediator, task master, and general factotum.

Fourth, within the isolated classroom there is no chance of a teacher learning from other teachers. They have only themselves to support and development must be a self invented and implemented set of procedures. Consequently in this environment the implementation of new practices is difficult as social reinforcement is absent. The sole practitioner has only their own resources to fall back upon with the implementation of change. Fifth, without social reinforcement over time the social skills of teachers within classrooms will inevitably decline due to the lack of social reinforcement. At one set of schools in Kent, teachers tested using the MSCEIT (Meyer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test) scale found three quarters of teachers with less than average social skills. This suggested perhaps that the comparative social isolation of classrooms for teachers took a toll on their work related skill sets at the very least.

  1. The Problem Defined

In a world that is awash with knowledge and devices on which this knowledge can be accessed, how should schools change their structures, spaces and processes to adapt? In the future, is it simply knowledge that is to be valued or is it the ability to understand, manipulate and synthesise knowledge to generate insights that we value? Within this setting how do we teach the necessary skills of self-management, teamwork, communication and so forth?

These issues are not necessarily enshrined in current curriculum planning or government education policy. However they are the kinds of problems that are surfacing on the global agenda as countries get used to the fact that their economies are likely to be driven less by manufacturing and production and more by services. Put simply, much of the world has changed but the classroom remains unaffected, so how might it be redesigned?

At Future Schools Trust in Maidstone we looked at this problem by re-designing existing spaces and creating learning environments for up to 90 pupils at a time.

Within this environment we began to establish teachers as members of teams. This required new ways of working and the shift away from the teacher as isolated artisan towards the teacher as team member. Tasks previously undertaken by one person could now be divided across the team. For the first time teachers were more in control of the components of their work. Behaviour management could now be divided between a team of teachers rather than relying on the sole practitioner.

For students we tried to design a space that was more likely to be a destination environment – somewhere they wanted to be. We deliberately paid attention to the lighting design to attempt to create a mood that encouraged learning. Furniture from business was selected rather than conventional school furniture as we sought to make a link between the world of work and the world of school.

The first generation plaza was quickly followed by the next one. In this version we talked to the designers of Apple stores about the design of experience. We increased the amount of technology within the space and used more sophisticated bio dynamic lighting to impact mood.

Learning from experiences here we then built the third generation prototype with more interactive devices and again evaluated the impact of the space on teaching and learning.

Drawing on these experiences both New Line Learning Academy and Cornwallis Academy were designed as new builds centred around plaza designs. Each school had five double plaza environments with reduced circulation space and fewer specialist spaces. The idea was that students would spend up to 60 per cent of their day within the plaza environment. When they needed to undertake specialist work – science, technology, art, dance, drama, pe, food, -- then they would move to those spaces as in a conventional school.

The school design was very simple: an L shaped block with plazas stacked along oneside and conventional classrooms along the other completing one section and with sports and food dominating the other. Circulation space was reduced and extra space decanted into the plaza spaces. Within the final iteration mezzanine floors were included to teach more conventionally groups of up to 30. Within this configuration plazas could accommodate up to 120 students although typically the schools operate with a maximum of 90 students.

Within these environments all students are equipped with laptops that are stored and charged in their lockers outside the plaza. Here unisex toilets are also located.

Schematic of plaza picture showing seating plan

  1. Lessons from this approach to space

There are four key lessons learnt from this development of new space design:

  1. Culture: changing the work model for teachers and students is not an easy task but it is worthwhile. Schools have to think carefully about the cultural change process they need to undertake. They have to train teachers to work in teams and develop protocols to enable students to learn effectively within the new spaces. Although there are elements of self organisation that help with the process, careful planning and reinforcement is also needed. People – teachers – used to working on their own make the transition to group work at different rates and they manifest different difficulties. There is always the danger of ‘going backwards’, of defaulting to behaviours that work in small spaces but not in large ones. This ‘default to the mean’ ideology is probably one reason why most space experiments have not worked in the longer run: people simply give up and revert to what was as it seems so much easier.
  2. Metrics: As an adjunct to the new environment came an interest in building new metrics models derived from the concept of business intelligence. At its simplest this involved considering how to convert the operations of the school in terms of defined processes – teaching and learning crucially – to numerical values that could provide rapid feedback to understand both how the school was operating and as an aid to improvement. These approaches point the way towards greater personalisation. Space here precludes a more in depth discussion of these approaches.
  3. Costs: Building schools along the lines outlines can lead to cost and space savings of around 20 per cent. The very flexibility of the spaces also offers the potential to change the teacher cost model if required.
  4. Futures: the design of such space means that schools would be well placed to take advantage of the growing on line learning model. Within ‘blended learning environments’ digital content is backed up with teacher coaching and mentoring of students leading to different configurations of teaching groups. The key component here is the development of intelligent metrics that enable this process to operate smoothly. This is something that the Future School Trust academies are exploring as they introduce more on line materials for learning both within school and beyond.

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