Sunday, March 20, 2011

Schools for today and tomorrow



The more I got involved in educational development, as a school consultant or as a teacher trainer, the more I got aware that school buildings and facilities represent a major obstacle to innovative educational concepts and policies. On rare occasions contemporary school design offers new perspectives to teaching and learning but unfortunately most of the time new schools are not better than old ones even if they look better.

When I contemplate the structure of most schools, I always ask myself: Will these school facilities support the learning design of tomorrow? Would I enjoy going to this school as a teacher or as I student, and would I be able to develop a sense of belonging in these walls and school surroundings? Is this an environment that inspires collaboration, autonomy and communication, diversity and community, transparency, participation, and appropriation?

Of course high quality teaching can happen anywhere, even in the shade under a tree in the desert. The best equipment and the coziest environment cannot prevent uninspired teachers to sap students’ motivation to learn or undisciplined and frustrated students to undermine teachers’ motivation to teach. But, education is not limited to what happens in a classroom or to the relationship between a teacher and his students. The environment itself plays a significant role in the learning. Here I refer to the Scandinavian school models or the Reggio Emilia approach, where the environment is said to be the "third teacher" the first being the children themselves and the second the teacher or the adults in general.


When one sees the computers, the interactive whiteboards, the high quality ergonomic furniture the well designed architectural details and the exclusive materials, the question must be permitted if these components really shake off old structures and generate a new quality in learning and teaching. Do they make a difference when a classroom has the same proportions as those that were built one hundred and fifty years ago? It's not because everything is new and expensive that it may not be poor.


I don't think that a poor school design in a pedagogical sense is the result of a major communication problem between educators, stakeholders and architects. Their expertise maybe different but unfortunately their visions of school facilities are most of the time very similar. I doubt that most architects, stakeholders and teachers have other tenets to define what a school should look like besides aesthetic architectural considerations like harmony, symmetry, proportions and materials or basic characteristics that most of us consider being intrinsic truths of educational environments which are: 15 to 30 students will have to be instructed in a room separated from other rooms, accessible through one or two doors, with a blackboard at the front or a whiteboard or both, windows on one side, wall cupboards on the other, enough individual seats and worktables for each student and "one" desk for "the" teacher.


Do school planners think of education as a multidimensional collaborative and constructive process? Do they assume that the actors involved may be organized in networks and sub networks and multidimensional hierarchical structures defined by multiple levels of expertise instead of linear top down relationships and centralized instruction? I am convinced that they don't. The internal structure of modern schools and also their surroundings are seldom open to appropriation, in a constructionist perspective. But appropriation may well be a precondition so that the inhabitants of a structure can identify themselves with the environment in which they evolve, learn, interact, and think … In this respect, the German Peter Hübner, who sees "building as a social process" could offer some inspiration for anybody involved in school development and planning. Unfortunately schools are seldom conceived ass social meeting places as he sees them.


At least in Luxembourg we have schools that are disconnected from cultural centers and libraries (if there are any) and we have separate buildings for after school activities and lunchtime. Those buildings are empty during school time, and schools are empty during after school time, as if it were obvious that students need to flee from school after 4 or 6 hours of teaching. In every structure the students meet with a different staff, that has its own separated view on them. We build schools without libraries or open spaces for leisure and after school care structures without surroundings that offer the slightest potential for exploration. We have a ministry for education, one for family and yet another one for culture, and of course we have one for regional planning, one for public building, and last but not least one for environmental planning, but they hardly seem to communicate when it comes to developing a sound vision of educational infrastructures for today and tomorrow.


So far, I cannot but draw the following conclusion: First, for what schools have to offer, they are too expensive. Secondly, the total costs for separated structures are to high and none of them offers the richness and interconnectedness that they should. Finally, if stakeholders persist in believing that it is better to have separated structures for every aspect of education, and if, what we have is the maximum of what one can get for the money that has been spent, then, schools are not expensive enough.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967


  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967



Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain

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