Tuesday, December 05, 2006

If You Build It, They Will Learn

In response to the 2020 Vision presentation, I received an email from Cindi Hopkins, Executive Director of Instruction for Bloomfield Hills Schools in Michigan.
If you were designing a new high school today - $75,000,000 and a size of 275,000 square feet for about 1,000 kids, how would you use your thoughts to design the school differently than the one you have today?
Bloomfield Hills is hoping to build two new high schools - Andover and Lahser - that would open in 2010 if the voters approve.

Now, I have lots of ideas (big surprise) that I will share with her, but I asked her if I could blog about it so that I could solicit ideas from a few more folks. It would be great if not only students and staff at my high school gave some suggestions in the comments, but also if all you other folks out there who read The Fischbowl (dozens and dozens of you) chimed in as well. And I would boldly suggest that if any of the more prominent edubloggers happen to read this, this might be worthy of a post of your own. Here is a school district that is building the high school of tomorrow (literally) and wants our input. I think we should take advantage of that and offer up our best thinking about what high school should look like in the 21st century (well, at least in the 2010's).

While I'm still thinking about the ideas that I'm going to send to Cindi, I will emphasize - as I'm sure many of you will - that the most important decisions about the schools aren't necessarily related to building design. They would be about curriculum (however you define that), and mission, and goals, and expectations, and mindset, and hiring the right staff, and setting a vision with and for the students. The most important decisions will revolve around students taking charge of their own learning, being passionately involved in their own learning, and making a difference in the lives of those around them - as well as those (physically) far away from them. About being adaptable and flexible and knowing how to learn how to learn (all that "flat world" stuff). It will not be about "education as usual." In my opinion, all those things will far outweigh just about any building design choices. And those will be the hardest choices to make and implement.

Having said that, Cindi indicates those things are all being talked about in her district and she is asking for building design suggestions that will help support that type of education, "a space that can facilitate flexible, independent learning," so I will give some of those as well. You are welcome to submit comments of either type (learning design or building design) and Cindi will be following along. Let's reward her initiative in asking these questions and give her some really good advice.


  1. In Daniel Pink's _A Whole New Mind_, he suggests that "design" is very important for right and left brain thinkers. I agree. If I were designing a new school, I would design some "creative spaces" where small groups of people can meet and discuss and learn. I would also encourage round tables and chairs that roll. Having a chair that rolls and turns increases creativity. As far as the buildings, and most especially the library, there needs to be large spaces where there is flexibility of space built in. There is a need for large group meetings and small group meetings and you can't have this if there is a library that is broken up by walls or circulation desks or banks of computers sitting in the middle of the room. So, overall, large spaces which can be re-arranged for a variety of uses is the key to an effective library space.


  2. Hi Karl,

    Loved 2020 Vision! I agree with what Rob says about the importance of design. I've been round a fair few schools and it seems to me that the academically less able ones tend to be the ones that have problem areas due to poor design.

    I think the key to a successful school building is flexibility - to allow the teachers to teach in a way that suits them, rather than being constrained by what they've got. For example my current classroom is very small and has an door leading to another classroom. Because of the lack of space and the potential for disturbing the class next door I cannot do as much active learning as I'd like.

    There needs to be ownership of classrooms so that they are kept in a reasonable state, but there also needs to be additional capacity and different kinds of rooms so that teachers have the ability to vary their lessons and mix things up a little bit! :-)

    Doug Belshaw

  3. I wanted to add my two cents to say that I would hope these folks would not lock themselves into the notion that they have to purchase the most expensive technology out there. k12 thin client labs perform well and can be maintained for lots less money. In starting from the ground up, open source could save these folks lots of money and free the budget up to purchase even more technology. WIth major brands becoming compatible (SMART's Notebook software is available for Linux now, for example) the savings on operating systems is substantial. Not to mention less virus threat (if any!) and less security holes. Also, this is not a Microsoft world any more, so they would be exposing kids to a new operating system that they may potentially use in their jobs. If nothing else, tell them to consider Open Office as opposed to MS Office. With VISTA coming out, do they really want to outfit this school with Microsoft? THis is a good chance to show the world that open source can revolutionize a school and save folks a ton of money.

    Chris Craft

  4. I agree wtih Rob that Whole New Minde has many good ideas that relate to design.

    I also would like to recommend a fascinating article by Randall Fielding, Jeffery Lackney and
    Prakash Nair of DesignShare that appeared in Edutopia Magazine.


    It has some mind-bending ideas on redesigning classroom spaces as studios.

    I completely agree that in order to have these designs work that it would mean having a larger conversation within a campus about the purpose and structure of the classroom and teaching models, though!

    We are in the midst of redesigning our library to be a more flexible, Web 2.0 type of space, so I'll be following this thread for ideas.

    We are looking at bookstore models, and a library as community center and learning studio, for ideas.

    I also highly recommend articles on DesignShare for ideas, as well as a book on design which they have published.


    Thanks for sharing this thread of conversation and what a great way to model using blogs to share the conversation.

    Carolyn Foote


  5. Another vision to consider in design is the US Dept of Ed "School 2.0" website:


    Go beyond the walls - what technologies can be made available for students on buses? How do students collaborate outside the classroom? How do we leverage the next PDA/Cell/Camera phone?


  6. Karl: The timing of your request sparks so many things for me this morning as I ironically prepare to head to Austin, Texas to speak to school leaders and school design professionals about this very question. In fact, in my 4 hour presentation, I'll be using your "2020 Vision" video as a provocation for planning schools in the future (assuming the conference room allows for Internet hook-ups -- virtual fingers crossed!). I had previously expected to show "Epic 2014" but you've taken the next critical step for the educational sector.

    Quickly: Rob's coments about small break-out creative spaces, furniture that is on wheels and is agile, and adaptive larger spaces are excellent suggestions. Chris' comments (which I echo below) about open-source (et al) is spot-on. Yes! Doug's suggestions for alternative spaces nearby that can help teachers explore new ways of teaching/learning is very valid. I would challenge him (respectfully) about the school of the future being based on 'ownership' of spaces...but that's for another conversation. Carolyn's suggestions for book-store library models and other community-oriented design decisions are critical ideas to explore -- also look at anyone writing about Library 2.0 as you Google around for ideas. Finally, Chris' comments about the PDA/cell issue are being overlooked by many, but the future of 'computing' or 'digital' learning will not require computer labs...and the longer we object to cell phones being brought into school as a 'learning agent', the longer we are investing in very expensive 'boxes' on tables that will little resemble the 'connected' learning community (school) of the future. Also appreciate that he brought up the DOE's School 2.0 model (more later).

    I fully agree with Daniel Pink's work being a must-read for the Michigan school's entire team. (In many respects, far better reading than Friedman's work in terms of sparking new thinking on creativity for for the future). His suggestion that we are moving away from a linear, efficient 'information' age (as model for schooling) to a conceptual age that is more design-thinking (read: problem solving) and based on a myriad of resources being used to pursue learning, symophonic collaboration, and gestalt pattern seeking is bold. Look at Stanford's "d" school as a model for what he's talking about, and I can say from first-hand experience that CHAD (Charter High School of Architecture and Design) which Pink mentions, is a great model for what a truly dynamic learning environment can mean when we re-think the traditions. I also agree with the use of the DOE's "School 2.0" tools -- although they are in the very early stages of development and it still seems fuzzy to me -- as I'll be introducing this to my audience as well this week. The tag line for the DOE program is "There is No One Path to the School of the Future" is an important reminder. The focus of their program is technology, but I think you can apply it across the board in designing schools that are really able to fuel learning in the future.

    Well worth looking into Knowledge
    Works Foundation recent publication of the "2006-2016 Map of Future Forces Affecting Education" which offers a powerful gaze into the future in terms of all the change agents that will push upon schools and society. Another great brainstorming tool for her team. Trust me -- your team will never look at 'planning' for the future of your school in the same way. They'll be releasing a virtual version soon (which you can survey at their site), but you can get copies of the physical 'map' now.

    Steve Borsch is an ex-Apple guy, who is now a strategic planning consultant for large and new firms alike, who is brought in to discuss the rising "Participation Culture". He's just published an outstanding PDF that runs through the emerging technologies and how they are changing the way that people learn, collaborate, and create, and I think it's an amazing tool for planning schools as well. Go to www.iconnectdots.com and you can track down his work at the top of the page.

    Another wonderful resource is the American Architectural Foundation's "Great Schools by Design" initiative that is now working closely with Target. Having worked closely with the leadership of this initative, I can recommend anything you can get your hands on as very useful! They have just released (or will within days) a video on the Denver School of Science and Technology that may be very inspiring. It one of the most diverse public high schools I've ever seen, and the architectural decisions and commitment to 21st century learning (wireless laptops in every kids' hands, breakout spaces, soft seating, etc.) is something to take a very close look at.

    I'd also talk to Chris Lehmann (founding principal) at the newly opened Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia (right 'down the street' from the also newly opened Microsoft School for the Future that is worth exploring). Not only does he 'get it' as a school leader, but he's realized that simply spending a great deal of money is not the automatic key to developing a dynamic learning-centered 21st century School 2.0. He's a huge advocate for open-source technologies that unleash your kids' potential rather than spending huge sums on traditional software licenses, etc. His Practical Theory blog is a great place to learn more about him.

    I work closely with Randy Fielding, Prakash Nair, and Jeff Lackney (of FieldingNair International), and can speak on behalf of their new 'studio' models which they are developing in high schools here in the US and throughout the world. They work with small charter schools as well as national governments, so they are certainly in position to offer great ideas and solutions. Each of them has been helping to plan and design the very schools you are imagining. And they are wonderful! Their text, The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools, is a fantastic read. What it does as well as any other source out there is help foster a collaborative language that educators, community members, and design professionals can use simultaneously (rather than stand in their silos of expertise) to develop 'design patterns' for agile schools that will support learning in the future. Again, as the other person stated, their recent article in Edutopia and the LoSD text are excellent ways for a school team to spark conversation.

    Also, keep an eye out this spring for a book to be published about designing 21st century high schools. Ian Jukes (one of the best edu-futurists there is!) of the Committed Sardine site (a must read), Ted McCain (a leader in how technology and education merge), and Frank Kelly (a well known planner/designer who works in Houston) have collaborated on a very exciting book that is due out soon. I can put you in touch with them if you'd like; all great guys pushing forward on these vital design issues/questions.

    Finally, in my role at DesignShare, if there is anything I can do to offer additional ideas or connection points, please do not hesitate to touch base: christian[at]designshare[dot]com -- I'd enjoy the chance to learn more about the Michigan project(s). Also, I work with the FieldingNair International team as a senior planning consultant as well, so if I can make an introduction to Randy, Prakash, and Jeff, let me know.

    Best of luck to you in Michigan, and I can't say enough about Karl's "2020 Vision" video. Can't think of a more powerful way to spend 20 minutes to inspire debate and dialogue!

    President & CEO, DesignShare.com
    author: "think:lab" blog http://thinklab.typepad.com

  7. As a student currently enrolled in Arapahoe High School, I would like to add my personal ideas to the collaboration.

    One of the main things that I would like to see, as Doug Belshaw said, is a classroom for every teacher. Shared classrooms don’t seem as personal to students. Shared classrooms don’t allow the teacher’s personality to come through. When each teacher has his/her own classroom, the teachers seem more like everyday people and less authoritarian.

    I would also like to add that too many classrooms today lack windows. There are studies that show people are happier when natural light is present. Adding windows could make students more excited to learn because they are happier.

    Emily Lutz
    Class of 2010 Arapahoe High School

  8. You can find out more about the "Map of the Future" that Christian referred to in his comment at the KnowledgeWorks website. Or, if you are at Arapahoe, you can look at the printed copy of the map on my door.

  9. The mention of vista was a good point. Vista is going incredibly and senselessly expensive.

  10. Christian, Karl, and all--

    First, I apologize for my typos in my earlier post. I was so excited to find this discussion that my mind was moving faster than my fingers could!

    Second, thanks for all the great suggestions. I'm excited about following up on them.

    Have any of you read the article from the WSJ called "Legalized Cheating" from January 2006? The comment about cell phones reminded me of the article, which was about a school which basically began allowing cell phone and laptop use during tests rather than fight against the technology. The tests were structured to test application of knowledge rather than regurgitation. It was an interesting article.

  11. Great conversation! As someone who spends time in different school buildings all day, I echo Emily’s comments on the role of natural light. I know that when I spend the day in a dark school that is dominated by cafeteria-green colored cinder blocks, I walk out of there tired and, frankly, a little bit depressed. On the other hand, when coming out of the more contemporary buildings with more open space and natural light, I feel like I have more energy and am still fresh.

    Other ideas, in no particular order:

    Plenty of space to demonstrate student work—an in-house archive of student art, essays, computer animations, audio clips, video clips of big football games, rebuilt engines, etc. Yes, I supposed these could all be put on the web, but displaying students’ work, both digitally and tangibly, should be a pervasive concern.

    Do not group subject areas geographically—this only encourages academic provincialism. Rather, put the technical writing class next to autoshop, and the CAD class on the other side of that.

    Do not segregate administration. Administrators, including central administrators including superintendents, need to be close to the action and housed among the classrooms.

    I’m really intrigued by the concept of thin-client, Linux machines. Between open-source software and web-based applications, it’s becoming more feasible to serve student needs without Microsoft licensing.

    Lockers that make sense—has anybody watched these kids trying to jam their 40lb backpacks into a tall, skinny locker? By the way, why are backpacks getting so big? I guess it’s a sign of academic rigor.

    Large, open, inviting common areas. As well stated above, to allow for flexible class groupings and student demonstrations.

    Secure: fewer points of entry, monitored by professional security staff. I’m sorry to have to write this, but…

    and finally, student input in the design process.

  12. I definitely agree with the natural light idea. Cement walls and fluorescent lights just are not a happy combination. Bigger lockers would help too, or just smaller books. I always liked the idea of having books on cd and having a few actual books in the library in we want to do the work at school.

    Flexibility of space would be nice too. People are not meant to exist in rows all the time.

    Logical hallways layout would help too. Think about it, lockers and students stuffing backpacks into them on one side of a 15 foot wide hall, with 2000 other students trying to jam their way past. I know it sounds petty, but hallways make me feel like a sheep being herded. I've noticed that most teachers don't even try to brave the hallways in passing periods, I wonder why.

    A change in the desks would help too. Most of ours are the kind that the chairs are attached to the desk. I can't imagine a more uncomfortable setup. It forces us to sit straight, with our legs at the exact same angle all day. Also, there's the bar on the side making it nearly impossible to sit in arrangements other than rows. My history class is down near the art wing, it's in a computer room with large desks and office chairs. It's remarkable how much more relaxed and open the class is even with that minor change. It makes us more comfortable and more willing to participate. It makes us feel less like robots.

    And I know that this doesn't have to do with design, but imagine how much it would help if school started later. It's a scientific fact that our natural circadian rythym is affected by light. Waking up in the dark is just not healthy. And for those of us involved in activities, it's even worse. We arrive at school in the dark, and leave when it's dark. I've gone entire weeks without seeing daylight. That messes with my head. Day and night begin to blend together. When I wake up for zero hour, it feels as if I only just went to bed. It begins to feel as if I'm at school all the time, not a productivity aid. If I start the day exhausted, imagine how well I function by the time I get to math fifth hour.

  13. Cindi and Karl -- The conversation each of you sparked was extremely well-received in Austin this past week by both administrators and school design professionals alike. I was thrilled to be able to point their attention to the Michigan projects and the "2020 Vision" presentation. You'd have loved the responses!

    In addition to The Language of School Design (Nair, Fieldign) which you can find at the DesignShare.com site, keep your eyes peeled for a book coming out soon called "No More Cookie Cutter Schools" (working title, anyways) by Jukes, McCain and Kelly. One of the key components they point to (Frank Kelly) in particular is the issue of the clock/schedule to help develop truly innovative schools for the future. Molly G mentioned this in her comment -- and she's spot-on in her instincts. You can't 'get there' if you don't look at the entire 'ecology' of the learning experience. And this includes how we organize the 'time' of learning as well. Additionally, I'd look at VS, a company that has a brilliant line of ergonomic furniture that is based on the premise that learners/students need to 'move' in order to be engaged -- chairs, desks, workstations, etc. -- building movement into the learning act, rather than forbidding it. And there are some interesting 'lockerless' schools out there, too, which might be worth exploring, and also moves towards 'workstations' that each student 'owns'.

    Definitely watch the "Great Schools By Design" video that was just released by the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), Target, and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation -- they highlight the Denver School of Science and Technology, and begin to show how all of this can come together to create truly inspire learning environments for the future!

    Cheers...and best of luck to all of you!
    Christian Long, DesignShare.com

  14. Having been involved in three separate library designs, and undergoing the transition from libraries as quiet spaces to libraries as collaborative spaces, I would add a few comments to this wonderful collection.

    Yes, light is very important--natural light especially. Security issues (sigh) may make clerestory windows and skylights even more attractive than regular windows for getting that natural light.

    Windows within the building (not viewing the outside) are powerful, as are unobstructed views (choose those half-height book shelves for the middle of the room spaces, not the tall ones). Not only do views of available spaces add a chance to use our distance vision, but they entice people into shared spaces -- people are presented with the visual opportunity to join a room or discussion space when they can easily see that they are active--some people will not go out of their way to walk into an alcove to peek into a doorway to find a collaborator.

    But, just as those wonderful, open, collaborative spaces should be a vital part of the pace of a school, quiet and comforting private spaces must be there for those students who cannot function at their best when in an environment that is full of visual and auditory stimulation.

    Our current school library (K-8) chose to deal with this mix of needs by having a research and collaborative area in the main part, a "technology studio" with computers at one end in a room that had a wall of windows between the studio and the library proper (with shades to pull for darkening the room for the projector, and the computers are on desks with wheels on the back legs--they are easily lifted at the front and rolled into new configurations). We have a "story time room" full of floor furniture and pillows, carpeted half -way up the walls, and with a 2d story clerestory adding a vaulted space on half its ceiling and windows way up there that bring in natural lighting.

    It has become a "safe space" and a treasured space, with older students envying the younger students having read-aloud in it, with preschool teachers using it as a cool-down spot in a pinch, with speech therapists popping in for one-on-one, and students who need quiet to concentrate really treasure it. I would suggest that you consciously plan your auditory and visual spaces to offer a variety of levels of stimulation--and don't forget those quiet spaces, too.

  15. Its never too late to respond, eh? Bloomfield Hills certainly needs to be thinking about how to create effective smaller learning communities even as they prepare to build quite large schools. That is a whole topic in and of itself...

    I agree with all that has been said throughout, especially those voiced by Christian ;)

    Clearly good schools start with curriculum, teaching, learning and other social factors. However, as we continue to think in an either/or way about space, we keep missing the point! ALL human activity takes place SOMEWHERE - why not create inspiring and creative environments that support all this stuff we want to accomplish in education?

    It starts by thinking like Rob, Carolyn and Doug. Its not too late for Bloomfield Hills. Let your voice be heard!