what makes a school?

IMG_4099I have been thinking a lot about schools these past few weeks. Schools my kids attend, schools in other places, a design competition for a mongolian school. What is it that makes it possible for kids to learn? A recent design competition invited architects to think about these things for a school in northwestern Mongolia, here is what they came up with: cool school.

Schools serve many purposes, but socialisation and learning are probably the top two. In middle class societies, school also serves as daytime childcare. But let’s go back to the main ones – learning how to do things, learning facts, and learning how to get along. And maybe we should add learning how to follow instructions and how to sit still – which might be training for being good future employees but it also allows for the development of focus and patience and consideration of other people.
So when designing a school, how much does the building bring to the learning? How much should the environment be familiar, and how much should it challenge children with the new? And, since I live in a place where cutbacks are more common than vision, what can the school budget bear?

The modernist architects argued for neutral public spaces, for buildings like bright blank slates to be occupied and animated by the people inside. It seems to me that this kind of neutrality is most successful where equal rights and opportunities for all are put into action on a daily basis. Schools also demand we consider the question of scale in a school building built for children and their adult teachers. All the users aren’t even the same size! Modernist buildings tend to also supply flexible space, endlessly reuseable and adaptable to the evolving needs of teachers and buildings and changeable school populations. In the current situation in my hometown, where a demographic boom is putting enormous pressure on dense urban neighbourhoods, the flexibility of the school spaces seems paramount. And difficult. Should spaces be changeable, with moveable parts? Or will this take away from important performance aspects like durability and acoustic privacy? Or will schools simply expand and contract over time, taking over space in adjacent buildings until those, like the old schools from 100 years ago, are converted into housing coops and office space? Will we live with classrooms in trailers, maybe making the experience more pleasant and educational by designing better trailers?

In North America, we rarely get our hands dirty with collective construction projects like the barn-raisings of the past. Perhaps this needs to change too – including some flexibility in the legislation that severely restricts non-residential construction by people other than professionalized construction workers. In the meantime, solutions to the issue of school space and flexibility revolves largely around budgets and politics rather than problem-solving and design.

There are a few visionary places where pedagogy and a rethinking of the place of schools in our communities has lead to innovative school projects. These include school greening initiatives (global coalition for green schools), project-based learning areas with flexible furnishings, and areas which bring the community inside the school, making it a ‘third place’ to hang out and rub up against learning (which in turn reinforces the importance of the learning itself). Most often, these focus on transforming the school into a “third place” for its students (schools learning from innovative office space ). It seems to me that if we expand the conversation about the way schools should be in our neighbourhoods, visionary and flexible buildings may just emerge. People can be brave. The question is whether governments and school boards can be too.

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