I was reminded of this recently as I was reading the Educate Together Blueprint for Second Level Schools. Educate Together are a multi-denominational, co-educational, democratic and child-centred federation of Elementary and Second Level schools in Ireland. Their revolutionary vision for education in Ireland is built around four core principles, one of which is “The Built Environment”. Among their chief concerns are the “efficiency and sustainability, functionality and flexibility, building in context, accessibility, democratised spaces and aesthetic quality” of the school environment. This positive commitment to meaningfully engaging with the built environment is supported by recent studies by the University of Salford in Manchester which found that the classroom environment accounts for up to 16% of the variance in student performance over the course of an academic year. I have spoken on the importance of good classroom design here and here but this time I want to take a more school-wide perspective. The case of Educate Together is interesting however because they will be building a great many of the new schools they are given guardianship of and so staff and management will have both the excitement and the responsibility of defining the nature of teaching and learning in the context of these buildings. That requires engaging closely with the school design process and committing to employing the pedagogical approaches that are best suited to teaching and learning in these environments after construction. Such does not inevitably occur.
A good example of where difficulties can arise in this process is the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s "Innovative Learning Environments" (ILE) initiative. Despite comprehensive research, planning and discussion with school stakeholders and architects as well as a pilot programme in five schools, the programme has received a certain amount of criticism from schools nationally. The Ministry has decreed that all schools in New Zealand must upgrade their facilities in line with this initiative by 2021. The concept is admirable and aligns well with the findings of the University of Salford study. At its core the initiative is a response to the OECD’s “Innovative Learning Environments” project which identifies good design as that which:
- Considers student-centred learning
- Considers social learning
- Considers emotional development
- Leaves room for individualisation
- Stretches students
- Considers assessment for learning
- Builds horizontal connections
The Ministry has provoked some controversy by laying out clear design criteria to ensure that these seven goals are being met. However, this requires a dramatic shift in the relationship of teachers to their built environment and specifically what they can do in it. Under the new guidelines schools will be largely open-plan and use a lot of glass in place of partitioning walls, making teaching and learning more transparent. Boundaries will be less fixed, with moveable walls being used where possible. Learning will take place in shared corridor spaces and smaller breakout rooms will be used for individual student work as well as small and large group work. What the New Zealand government has, bravely, done is make it very difficult for teachers to hide or to rely on Direct Instruction only. School design will simply no longer allow it. By 2021 students will go to schools in places completely unrecognisable to their parents. Below is a link to St Clair Primary School, a project school for the initiative.
The greatest problem with the New Zealand initiative is that at the moment it is, according to Byron Bentley of McLeans College, too restrictive. Bentley, a progressive administrator, had planned renovations to his school with staff and architect input, only to have the designs rejected by the Ministry because they did not meet the size requirements of the new breakout space. His fear is that the ILE initiative is imposing a one-size-fits-all approach to school design on vastly differing communities. He has a point. The more vocal opposition to the plan has come from more conservative teachers and administrators who are unwilling to let go of their traditional classroom spaces and pedagogical methods. Roger Moses, the principal at Wellington College, worries that students will not “learn what they need to learn if…left to their own devices”. That argument, more directly, may be the battle on which the war for NZ school design is won or lost. At the moment Direct Instruction (correctly or incorrectly employed) is, without question, the most used teaching method in the world. New ILE regulations would force schools to shift to more student-centred approaches to teaching and learning such as Inquiry or Project-Based Learning which align with the OECD’s seven-point initiative. Many teachers and administrators will reject having this shift forced upon them.
The issue here then for any modern or progressive design initiatives for schools is that where there is a critical mass of teachers at a school who are not pedagogically committed to the design presented, conflict will arise and the potential offered by built environment for teaching, learning and community building will never be fully exploited.
The New Zealand example is interesting because it demonstrates quite well the power of school design to effect how people interact with their built environment. In this instance, while the concept is sound, perhaps the Ministry could more sympathetically consider the context and needs of individual school communities. However, in its defence, it is attempting to create learning spaces that can accommodate not only a broader range of teaching methods but which will prove flexible for future generations of teachers and learners.
The ultimate success of the ILE initiative will rest upon the ability of teachers and administrators to evolve and adapt to teaching in a more flexible, collaborative and transparent environment. And this is no small task. It is apparent that some NZ schools are unable - or unwilling - to reconcile a traditional, Direct Instruction approach (complete with rows of desks facing a blackboard and teacher) to teaching and learning with their new school buildings. In order for newly-built NZ schools not to be a complete waste of money and potential it is important that management be actively engaged to define the ethos and vision of individual schools and provide staff with adequate motivation and professional development to maximise the potential the design has to offer. However, where lines have been drawn and negative sentiment is already entrenched it will prove a difficult task to make happy residents of these educators. The first step for NZ is to make their new ILE vision the expectation for all and to complement this with intensive work at 3rd level to provide student teachers with a wide-ranging and practical education in progressive teaching methodologies.
The message here for progressive organisations such as Educate Together, who are in a position where they will be using school buildings of their own choice and specification (please see update by Emer Nowlan COO of Educate Together in comments below), is that it is essential that there be a clear and shared vision about what constitutes a positive “built environment” and that staff is hired that demonstrate a commitment to that vision. This should not prove difficult and merely requires that such schools employ teachers who are excited about working in a Mission-led, democratic and student-centred school environment. The key is to have a clearly-defined Mission Statement or set of Values (like the Educate Together Charter or the OECD ILE guidelines) at the time of interviewing for staff which can form a core part of the job description and interview process. This allows potential employees to demonstrate how they will engage with the built environment to maximise its potential for teaching and learning.
The conclusion is simple. When we build schools it needs to be a holistic planning process that includes all school stakeholders. School communities need to have conversations about how the built environment affects teaching and learning in their context. However, importantly, regardless of the level of input the community had in that process, a priority must be given to employing staff that are enthusiastic about adapting to, pushing the boundaries of, and experimenting with the design context they find before them. In short, we need to value flexibility in teachers as much as we do in our teaching environments.
Regardless of the school, the initial phases of settling in to a new building and defining a sense of community will be unsettling and that community will undoubtedly end up quite other than that envisaged during the school design process. But that same community will most certainly be shaped by people’s experience of the building. Where a genuine effort has been made to include all stakeholders in the planning stages of a school and where administrators have acted as passionate advocates for how their Mission Statement and Values are incorporated into the design process, the building itself can be regarded as a bricks and mortar representation of these core values, vision and pedagogical beliefs of those who inhabit it. This is perhaps where the New Zealand ILE initiative, as well-intentioned and adequately-researched as it may be, is too prescriptive and runs the risk of flattening out individual cultures and with them the very individuals it presumes to serve.
The following are three examples of schools where progressive design and pedagogical vision have been carefully aligned.