Education is evolving, so must our classrooms
School facilities must be flexible to accommodate changing learning patterns and methods
Learning is a complex activity that involves students’ motivation, physical facility, teaching resources, teachers’ skill, and curriculum. All these factors play a vital role in a child’s education.
Let us consider the physical condition and design of the actual school facility itself. Today’s busy working parents — when they visit the school during parent-teacher meets — discuss mostly their child’s learning, achievement, and progress, not school maintenance or design issues. There are few opportunities for parents to observe a classroom or school during the school day. But it is just during this time that a significant number of students and teachers struggle with such things as noise, glare, mildew, lack of fresh air, and hot or cold temperatures.
News about such environmental nuisances is beginning to appear more and more in the media. And research is uncovering growing evidence showing that conditions like these and many other aspects of school facilities have a huge and often negative impact on children’s education.
Aside from things like mold and mildew, superficial conditions that exist in schools often because of poor maintenance are much more systemic. One is age. The average school today at 25 or 30 years faces demands that were never intended or even conceived when the building was built.
Another problem is that education today is delivered in an entirely new manner, with new tools, techniques, and teaching methods that increasingly don’t fit the simplistic conventions of 25-30 year old school designs. By this age most buildings start deteriorating rapidly, even if all the original equipment is replaced. Typical market forces suggest retiring such buildings but their service continues, perpetuating crowded classrooms, outmoded designs, poor communications systems, limited technology and inadequate security.
Many older schools can’t meet with accessibility requirements of the challenged without extensive and often expensive renovation. Moreover, their static, inflexible design can preclude the use of advanced teaching processes such as peer-to-peer and group participation. These highly interactive group learning experiences, which have overshadowed the decades-old lecture/listen style of learning, are mandated in the evolved, technologically driven working environment that students are preparing for.
The core of this teaching approach requires school designs that have open, flexible floor plans, modular furniture and highly mobile learning tools such as electronic chalkboards, portable computers, expandable networking, and interactive video. Few 25 year-old schools designs can fill these needs. And the difference to a child between receiving an education in a really well-designed, modern new school and a typical 25 year old school can be like the difference between writing in the sand and surfing the internet.
Good acoustics are important in any learning situation, but noise in classrooms often makes children struggle to hear and concentrate, defeating the learning process at the outset. In a typical school, classrooms may bombard students with three sources of noise: 1. Noise from outdoors, 2. Mechanical noise generated between rooms or between corridors and rooms, 3. Noise generated within the classroom, including the ventilation system. Taken all together, the noise can stifle a child’s chance to learn.
Full-spectrum lighting has a profound influence on our body and mind. It affects our circadian rhythm — our body’s natural regulating biologic system, which governs all activities. It can alter our mood. “Daylighting in Schools,” by Heschong Mahone Group in Fair Oaks, Calif., is a detailed new study investigating the relationship between daylighting and human performance that involved thousands of students from more than three states in the US. The study’s initial report shows that students in a classroom that had a well-designed, adjustable skylight that diffused daylight throughout the room and reduced glare improved their learning substantially faster than students in more traditional classrooms.
Study after study concludes that there is an explicit relationship between the physical characteristics of school buildings and educational outcomes. And while good maintenance, modern systems, and flexible designs are clearly required, there are even more complex, outside societal factors that need to be addressed.
Parents and society are demanding more accountability and uniform standards in evaluating student achievement. Parents in particular want to be able to evaluate their child’s learning achievements and academic standing among other students.
Educators have reacted by lengthening school schedules and requiring longer school days and shorter vacation times. Efforts to improve student learning have also resulted in stricter achievement standards and more student testing with external inspections by knowledge authorities becoming the norm rather than an exception.
All of these changes and trends are necessary in this technological age and they are here to stay, even at the earliest grade levels. And even though the student population will continue to grow for several more years, the goal to reduce class size has been set in many areas of the country.
Generally our student population is becoming more multicultural. Teachers will need to continue to ensure that their individual teaching style encompasses students’ diverse cultural needs.
Teachers are becoming more involved in team teaching, where individual teachers share a common theme with students. Some school systems allow teachers to stay with the same student through several grade levels.
Linkages between different subject areas are growing, and teachers, out of necessity, are enhancing their multidisciplinary capabilities. Students are becoming increasingly collaborative, working in groups to obtain a common learning goal.
All these changes in teaching methods require changes in school facilities. The adage, “the building fits the curriculum,” a saying that developed because the physical structure limited the learning experience, no longer holds true. School facilities and classrooms must be flexible enough to accommodate changing learning patterns and methods.
Changing teaching methods and educational practices require radically different types and sizes of teaching spaces. An example is common spaces where several classes of students can meet at the same time to work together create large projects or participate in interdisciplinary learning.
This modern curriculum will require much greater access to infrastructure, such as power, data, plumbing and mechanical systems. Schools have also become centers of community activities, which require specialised spaces as well.
Dr. Farooq Ahmad Wasil is a noted educationist and author from Kashmir, presently based in Dubai. A consultant to GEMS Education, Dubai, he has over 3 decades of experience in the field of education — setting up, operating and managing schools. He used to write a regular column ‘Educare’ for Kashmir Images.