Technology changes everything. Disruption is the highest order and creative destruction is beautiful. Virtual reality is real. Inter-connected, on-demand, the uber-of-this and the Netflix-of-this-other-thing, bite sized and mobile, we Buzzfeed everything. Nothing is safe from our new normal.
Based on the pre-washed, yet custom fit t-shirt slogans of Silicon Valley, we’re all on a one-way ride to technology nirvana – everything we want, everywhere we go, whatever we do will be easier, faster and more efficient.
Schools – the literally constructed spaces in which students learn and teachers teach – remain a monument to the way things were, impervious to upgrades and innovations. Pedagogy has changed, albeit slowly. And we do maintain a school calendar built around the harvest. Nonetheless, nary a school stands in this county without computers and many have high-capacity broadband internet access capable of delivering nearly any content at any time. Nearly every teacher of every subject at every education level has overwhelming access to resources, plans, concepts and teaching and assessment tools unimagined just 60 months ago.
But the loins share of students still sit in boxy concrete rooms arranged in rows of desks, facing a teacher who will talk, distribute materials and impart knowledge – a configuration that has not changed in at least 200 years. The average school building in the United States was built in the early-1970s based on designs from the late 60s. And since that’s the average, for every school built in the 1990s, running on 1980s thinking, there’s one built in the 1950s using teaching designs from World War II.
We’ve all seen them. Many of us spent years of our lives in them. And given what the evangelists about the future have promised, we’ve been simply, shockingly slow to build or design physical spaces that match what we now think we know are better ways to teach and learn. School spaces from the 1970s are wholly, fundamentally incompatible with today’s education and technology.
Worse, many of the schools being designed and built today aren’t much different than those of the 70s or earlier. Schools have become, design-wise, an ultimate manifestation of function over form.
As long as the function is learning, the form has been rendered nearly irrelevant. But while the function of schools remains the same, the strategies, tactics and even ideas about learning have all changed. Yet we still think schools are just the boxes in which those things happen. So we get more and more learning boxes the way we always had them – essentially eliminating the prospect of educating out-of-the-box thinkers from in-the-box classrooms.
“The lack of innovation around spaces for education is a serious problem,” school designer Danish Kurani of Kurani design told me. “We know how to build schools, we know what they look like, what they cost and what we want them to do. And that’s usually all we see – the way we used to do it. The problem is, when schools are being designed, we’re blind to the reality that everything is changing so we keep on doing what we’ve always done.”
Kurani, who just designed a new computer science lab for Google and MIT, recently wrote in Quartz, “We are building a state-of-the-art Formula 1 engine in the body of an old, broken-down Buick, and wondering why the car won’t go.”
That’s exactly right. On school design and buildings, the gap between what are able to do and what the spaces allow for is on par with requesting an Uber by carrier pigeon.
And, yes, of course, investing in new school designs and spaces will be expensive. But compared to what?
In pure dollars and cents, we’re collectively investing tens of billions of dollars annually in education expenditures such as teacher training, new teaching technologies and curriculum advancements and assessments – investments which are being undercut by poor, outdated and incompatible learning places. Spending all that money and not spending more on better, tech-savvy learning centers is like putting new floors in a house with a leaking roof – the floors will be amazing but at some point you’re going to have to replace the roof to protect the investment you already made in your floors.
For the all wisdom and convenience showered on us by our innovation demi-gods, they’ve overlooked – we’ve all overlooked – many spaces and places in profound need of some innovation.