Author: Brian Paul Dougherty, FAIA, LEED AP
21st CENTURY CLASSROOMS
Just what do we mean by “21st Century”? Isn’t that already here? Yes, the future is now. In many ways the school of the 21st Century is reaching back to borrow lessons from schools of the past. The school has always been as much a cultural institution as an environment for gathering and sharing knowledge. Through most of the 20th Century the design of schools evolved into a more highly articulated series of spaces with specialized functions to allow for the use of the technology of its day. With the revolution in access to individualized information and a shifting of societal roles in the delivery of public services into the school environment, the need for highly articulated space has dissolved into a more flexible and generalized series of spaces that promote interaction and long-term flexibility. We are back to the one room school house, only on a grand scale. And now our concerns for security have become another parameter to overlay upon the classroom template. Once our schools were valued as a safe haven for the education of our children, our future. Now they are a target for wayward members of our society. The challenge is to provide the safety and comfort that we need to educate our children without building fortresses.
Innovations in Design to Support 21st-Century Technology
Successful learning is grounded in a higher level of self-direction and flexible teaching modes. With the advent of wireless technology and access to information that is immediate, the ability to teach in small groups at a pace which is based largely on the students own path requires that we design spaces that support better flow. Learning is no longer a teacher standing in front of 30 students and feeding them a prescribed menu of curriculum lessons. It is interactive, multi-directional and based on exploration which will keep the student engaged and hungry for more. Children are not allowed to bring smart phones to school in some environments. In others, phones and tablets are the most powerful and effective interactive tools for learning. With learning disabilities being identified at an alarming rate, these children are responding to high-tech tools such as tablets where other strategies have been previously unsuccessful. Learning can be fun! Learning can be high-tech. To expect anything less is to ignore technological innovation as the future of educational delivery. Soon, hardwire will be replaced by Wi-Fi environments. The greatest challenge will be how to monitor the flow of information so that it provides vast opportunities for students while being age-appropriate. We can only image what the distant future may hold for educational facilities design.
Supporting Emerging Trends
The places we inhabit to learn must themselves be capable of learning. Borrowing from the work of Stewart Brand in “How Buildings Learn” we need to imagine our environment in 20 or 30 years and design as if our current setting is only temporary. We know that technology demands will evolve on a rapid schedule, moving in areas that we may not now be able to identify or predict. The areas of study will change; the way in which we share and communicate will grow; the implications on classroom design will challenge us. All of this impacts how we build, what materials we use, where we place elements of permanence versus impermanence. To create an asset that is of lasting value we must allow it to learn over time. It must be sustainable in every sense of the word; in infrastructure design and inherent flexibility; in effective and affordable long-term maintenance and operations; in safety, security and oversight measures; and in beauty, enrichment and inspiration.
The Future of Learning
The greatest trend we see is the decentralization of information and the technology and modes to allow access to that information. There is also a distinct relationship between theoretical and practical learning. The creation of small group learning spaces and project oriented environments are mixed with larger lecture spaces. Attention is given to acoustics, lighting, focal length, color, and distraction. These design strategies have a direct influence upon perception and the neuroscience of learning. The ability to create a virtual world allows the development of a bridge between theory and practice. We can now take apart large and complex mechanisms virtually, without the need for their physical presence, allowing updated settings with the update of software. But there is no substitute for the real thing. Virtual bread baking just doesn’t smell the same coming out of the oven.
Technology and Educational Facilities Design
Technology in the hands of today’s students is a given. This may be the first time in recent history that student operational skills might outweigh teaching skills related to hardware and software technologies. Students today have grown up with gaming, texting and tweeting. There is an expectation that if we need to research an issue we can pull out our hand held device, type in a few words, and open a world of instant and in-depth information regarding that subject. This implies the design of an environment that will house a horizontal organization that is based more on random interaction than on structured course work. The chaos theory has perpetrated our classrooms. Teaching space needs to facilitate exploration rather than mandate hierarchical thinking. This calls into question the role of traditional facilities such as Libraries, and demands their transformation into Learning Resource Centers. They are evolving into spaces that provide a central node for augmented instruction regarding access to information, but are less and less about housing books. The amount of information available on the Internet dwarfs conventional library selections. With all of the implications of technology and its impact upon instruction and instruction spaces, hopefully there will always be the opportunity for a child to sit under a tree on a warm day and turn the pages of a good book.