James Marshall Crotty, Contributor
I cover education as a sector and as the bedrock of all sectors.
What was your childhood classroom like? Did everyone walk in line to go to class? Were students seated in rows, facing forward? Did you respond to a bell, signaling the beginning and end of class?
If you’ve ever looked at a photo of a school classroom from 100 years ago, chances are you’ve noticed one striking feature: not much has changed.
Sure, the classroom technology has improved and students come equipped with brilliantly advertised Samsung cell phones and Apple iPads. And, yes, there are the Kahn-inspired outliers where kids watch lectures online at home, and use the classroom as a homework resource center. However, that’s about it. In general, the physical design of schools and classrooms has changed little in the last century.
In contrast, social, cultural and technological changes have dramatically transformed the makeup of today’s students. They’ve evolved to become more tech-savvy at a much earlier age. Moreover, they are far more collaborative than ever before.
English: Photo at the south east corner of the Phoenix Bioscience High School in Downtown Phoenix, Arizona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If students have changed, and curriculums and technology have changed in tandem, why shouldn’t physical campuses follow suit?
A few schools are indeed taking the cue. For example, at the Marine Science Magnet High School(MSMHS) in Groton, CT – see the charming student-inspired recruitment video here — students are immersed in the world of marine science both literally (students spend half their time on field trips to marine environments) and figuratively (there’s a mix of what are termed Land Days and Sea Days). MSMHS students begin their marine immersion as they arrive on campus, walking across a bridge over wetlands created by water collected from the school roof and filled with plants and animals that will be studied later in the day. The bridge itself has an exposed structure illustrating basic engineering principles at full-scale – a more tangible demonstration than would typically be offered in a textbook. Another example of this in play is the school’s aquaculture lab where students raise a variety of fish with artificial seawater produced within the facility.
Overall, the school was designed by JCJ Architecture to make sustainability features a palpable part of the students’ learning environment and easily integrated into their curriculum. The guts of the building – from the motors and pumps that support the aqua tanks to the equipment used to sustain algae – are completely hands-on and available to students as they become immersed in marine life. The school’s solar panels, geo-thermal wells and plant-covered green roof —that cleans rainwater before it travels into the school’s wetlands – are all on display and capable of doubling as teaching elements.
The environment at MSMHS – which opened in 2011 – also promotes student collaboration. For example, the school’s home base — the heart of the school — combines a large open area with individual breakout spaces lining the perimeter. Students can seamlessly float between formal instruction to smaller team zones equipped with moveable tables, chairs and flat screen monitors where they can share work electronically, or they can migrate to a bigger space that can accommodate larger sets of multiple groups.
Another school taking advantage of what has been dubbed “3-D learning” isFairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet Campus in Bridgeport, Conn, thelargest school building project in Connecticut history. The $126 millionLEED-certfified school comes complete with ten wind turbines and solar panels to generate power, and a green roof design makes it energy-efficient. The school campus is 76 percent open space — FWMMHS was designed as a natural extension of the surrounding forest – which allows students to observe and interact with their surroundings. These students will come from Bridgeport, where most kids do not have the opportunity to interact with lush, green spaces.
Out west, architects at Orcutt | Winslow designed Phoenix Union Bioscience High School – located in downtown Phoenix — to facilitate similar use of flexible and collaborative spaces that double as interactive teaching tools.
Recently, Phoenix Union Bioscience was ranked 27th among the 30 Most Amazing High School Campuses in the World by Best Education Degrees (BED). The high school is “perfectly situated in the city’s genomics research district, while its design highlights the school’s science-focused curriculum thanks to the fossils cast into the building’s concrete walls,” noted BED.
These are compelling architectural works. Nevertheless, are architecture-driven schools just the latest edu-gimmick or do such aesthetically innovative schools actually produce better academic results?
According to a study published by the University of Salford in Great Britain, a school’s design can affect test scores by as much as 25 percent.
“It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings, but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools,” noted Peter Barrett, a professor at the University of Salford.
Moreover, in compiling data looking at school modernization and student achievement, the Portland Public Schools district found that facility conditions can impact student achievement by up to 17 percent.
In contrast, Amanda Ripley (author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way), commented at the recent GSV Advisors Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, that in her travels uncovering the geography of educational greatness, she found that in countries that do best on global measures of academic excellence the physical campuses are often far worse off than those at even sub-par U.S. schools. In addition, Ripley found that even in tech-savvy nations like South Korea the technological infrastructure of most schools was often mediocre at best. Ditto for Finland, Taiwan and other PISA stalwarts. And forget about the recreation areas, which were often in poor condition or nonexistent.
What was different at the schools in these “educational superpowers,” Ripley found, was the universal excellence of the teachers – and the respect that students, parents, media and policy-makers had for them — regardless of the quality of the school campus itself. As the Economist proved – but which few I meet in U.S. education seem to heed — it’s a culture’s support and desire for learning that is the ultimate arbiter of student succes. And that cultural shift starts, first and foremost, in the home.
We can build the coolest, most engaging campuses in the world — we have two, Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts and Animo Leadership Charter High School, right here in my second city of L.A. — but until we get parents and students to grasp the importance of daily, rigorous, focused study, expensively transforming the aesthetics of a school is like rearranging deck chairs on the Education Titanic.
That’s my take. Let me know yours in the Comments area below.