schools of the future

At a recent Common’s Education Committee hearing, The Royal Institute of British Architects issued a warning that efforts to slash the cost of school building projects, is still resulting in formulaic design and ‘functional’ boxes. We need to start literally thinking “outside the box”, (if you’ll forgive the expression).

This is because in our highly connected world, students have ubiquitous access to quality, content and myriad ways to explore, study and interact. This rings true in both the digital world and the physical learning environment. As a result, we should see schools change exponentially over the next 20 years, to meet the challenges driving these educational changes today.

Herein lies an exciting opportunity to design spaces that better adapt to the latest ideas in teaching and learning, creating connected communities in which students feel they belong and want to spend their time.

World famous educationalist Loris Malguzzi has said, “There are three teachers, adults, other children and their physical environment,” a point that Salford University’s School of the Built Environment would certainly endorse, because a recent study conducted by the Salford team revealed that the built environment has a big impact on the learning progress, human performance and wellbeing. Technological advancements will also pioneer physical design change. The Future Classroom Lab for example, which involves big name independent IT providers, is already looking at how children should be taught in the connected world.

Schools will become increasingly ICT oriented as companies such as Oculus Rift, offer immersive 3D experiences for the classroom. Hardware and software that will put a child ‘inside’ an ancient Egyptian Tomb or amongst the ‘groundlings’ watching a Shakespeare play in the Globe theatre will become commonplace. Work tables will be super computer screens where a child can assemble from a kit of parts a Greek or Roman Temple, that will be projected on wall sized screens for others to view as it spins through 360 degrees. Sound and vision will be seamless and it will be possible to pull up images from the internet and literally swipe them onto the wall using your finger just like the track pad on your lap top. All of these techniques are available right now and are already being used in retail. If Audi can create a 3D car in a state of the art showroom and have that shown on a 3D festival sized screen then why not cascade that learning and capability into schools?

So what kind of space would we need for this? First of all something that extends the learning environment beyond the four walls of the classroom: a tailored design that fits its objectives and the characteristics of its learning community. The active classroom solutions that are coming out of the Future Classroom Lab’s work will need more space than traditional content-driven classrooms – and a requirement to shift away from the rectangle: rectangular buildings with rectangular classrooms full of rectangular furniture!

Individuals will be able to pursue different learning activities at the same time and the traditional ‘front’ of the classroom (represented by a white board and teacher’s desk) will be just one focal area among many. Space will become infinitely adaptable and reconfigurable; to better suit the needs of a new generation of peripatetic students who move or ‘flow’ through a school environment during the school day. They will be designed to be flexible and community-focused, with a multidisciplinary approach that considers teaching and learning models, the physical campus, future technology, and the students’ entire experience. I truly think we are entering the era of the agile learning environment – one that can be reconfigured or repurposed at will to engage different types of learners and teachers, one that can offer social learning spaces such as cafes and study or “break-out” areas to encourage learning through interaction. We can already see how effective this is with our recent project, Kings Maths School in London, which has various “pods” in which students can engage and share their learnings in a well-designed, flexible and relaxed environment.

It is also important to allow relevant experts to design and fit out different areas of a school, which will allow the school to benefit from their specific experience and expertise, rather than adopting a “one size fits all” approach. A company that is already pioneering this is Bryanston Square Holdings, with their “Fitout” service offer. Bryanston have built a portfolio of more than 120 organisations, who are expert in their own field and draw from these, to work closely with schools to design, fitout and manage inspiring learning environments. Schools, together with a Bryanston team of experts, redefine how learning environments should look and be managed. Success is then measured on how the spaces work and how effective they are in meeting the overall needs of the space and its users and occupiers.

Whatever ideas we come up with in education design, at the heart of all these should be the needs of the students and their teachers. In the school of the future, the environment will adapt to how children want to learn. It will provide children with everything they need to study, relax and play and it will give them a feeling that they belong there. This holistic approach to education design will create vibrant learning communities that thrive both in the virtual and real worlds.

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