Schools of the Future

Our School District has a School Conceptual Design Group.  Membership includes superintendents, secretary treasurers, principals,  facilities managers, teachers, parents, architects, and myself.  Our purpose is to conceive new school designs that will serve us for tomorrow and the next 50 years.  No small undertaking for sure.

Back in the fall of 2005, we were struggling to find our way with technology.  We were also looking for new ideas for building schools fit for tomorrow.  I was asked to find “someone” that could talk to us about school design that leverages technology for learning.  I found Alan November.  Alan spoke to two groups in November ‘05…  one with facilities planners, architects, some principals, senior administration, and I and an afternoon group of several hundred teachers, principals, and IT staff.  One principal a while later said something like “that was our November awakening”.  It did start a flurry of conversations, in-service sessions, conversations, and idea storming about how technology can support learning, enhance teaching, and affect school design.  I highly recommend Alan if your District needs some out-of-the-box thinking around learning and technology.  Perhaps send a team to his annual conference…  we attended, and more attended, it was very helpful for us.

Anyway, Alan showed us some pix and talked about High Tech High.  I had the good fortune to visit High Tech High a few years back.  Seven of us from my District went down to take a look at what was essentially a project based learning system.  Kids were working on all sorts of projects in the hallway, in flexible spaces, open spaces, etc.  There seemed to be a real buzz and kids seemed to be pretty into their learning.  Definitely not a lot of traditional rows of desks with seat work.

We met (some students joined us) in July 2009 with Frank Locker, a school design / planner (eg. Flexible School Facilities) who facilitated some great thinking and discussion about schools of the past, today, and the future.  There was some consensus that we needed to be more community oriented, open and flexible spaces, clustered spaces, use garage doors, have a learning commons, support active / project based learning, etc.

I just read an article by Janna Anderson, lead author of the Future of the Internet series and she says in The Futurist (Jan-Feb 2010), page 24:

“But the traditional idea of the teacher may be much less valuable to the future, just like the traditional library will have much less value…What we do need are places where people can gather – places that foster an atmosphere of intellectual expansion, where learners can pursue deeper meaning or consult specialists with access to deep knowledge resources.  It’s all about people accessing networked knowledge, online, in person, and in databases.  We need collective intelligence centers, and schools could be that way, too.”

Later in the article she also says:

“Maybe what we need is a new employment category, like future-guide, to help people prepare for the effects of disruptive technology in their chosen professions so they don’t find themselves, frankly, out of a job.”

Hmmm, food for thought.  I think we in K12 need to really think hard about the future, our roles, our purpose, our buildings…  schools designed for the 19th or 20th century won’t cut it in the future.

A key challenge we face in considering new designs is the difficulty in seeing the advantages of the change.  Teachers and Principals are used to what schools should be and when current designs are disrupted, we’ve found there is difficulty in adapting – people continue to see a classroom, a library, a commons, etc. through traditional eyes.  A key requirement should be some well designed staff development to help people through the change.

Our design group met today about middle school design.  We talked about the immediate remove of the computer lab not being practical, yet.  The trick is to design a new building that is flexible enough for a “lab” but can easily be reconfigured into other space.   A key middle school structure is Explorations and computer instruction is one such exploration.  We talked about pods (the shared/common space in the middle of four classrooms (this is a team) and the making the pod space project space with technology, art, and other explorations.  The library is another traditional space that we’re trying to rework.  Smaller space for shelves and some intellectual gathering areas for conversation, reading, etc. (think Starbucks inside a Chapters).  But also some clear glass sound rooms with closable sliding doors of varying sizes for kids to work in small teams in quiet spaces.

I would like to engage others in conceiving future schools.  Put your imagination glasses on…  if you could design a new high school, or middle school, or elementary school, --- maybe there are no grade organized schools in your imagination --- what features, requirements, would you specify?

  • What type of technology would be included and where?
  • How would students be organized (by grade, age, readiness, curriculum, other)?
  • How would curriculum be delivered?
  • How would time be partitioned?
  • What physical aspects would be needed?
  • How do you best charge and secure laptops, netbooks, and other digital devices?
  • Describe the ideal classroom?
  • What “green” aspects would there be?
  • Go crazy with this – think way outside the box – what would you design?

I’d like to take your input through your comments back to our design group.  Thanks in advance for sharing your thinking with me.


  1. Brian,

    Interesting post! I am an Instructional Technology Specialist at a high school in northern suburban Atlanta, very technology-forward, and yet I think our schools are not quite going in the direction they need to. Lots of toys, but not a lot of instructions on how to use them. (That's part of my job, to change that...)

    I was just having a conversation along these lines with one of my teachers today. We have lots of technology in the classrooms - desktops, interactive whiteboards - but with the traditional setup of rows and rows of desks taking up so much space, they don't get used nearly as often or as effectively as they could, or should.

    I'm always skeptical, though, that education is just a juggernaut of "always-done-it-like-this" that real change is too slow-in-coming to be effective. But I can hope...

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Techieteacher - you've hit a key point on the head. We use a framework for guiding our implementation of technology (imagine a stairway with 4 steps): equity - staff dev - learning - exemplars and loop back to staff dev. If any one of these steps crumbles, it fails. Staff Dev is such a key step - if missed, tech becomes a collection of toys often used in interesting but possibly irrelevant ways...

    Let's keep up the hope that things can change for the good hey. thanks for your comments.

  3. Brian, I happened upon your blog while reading weblogg-ed. Not only did I find it interesting we share the same last name but interests as well (I am a keen mountain biker and skier). I also work in the education field as a teacher-librarian, as well developing and working with students doing online courses (SD 20). We find ourselves in interesting times with declining enrollment, less money from the government and the realities of living in a small community. There are a number of educators in the district looking at changing the current model of education. What this looks like is still not solidified but we have constructed a time tabled that has much more flexibility by using a blended method of some online, small learning cohorts working in real time as well as online, and a teacher as guide and facilitator. Getting other teachers on board is difficult as change is not always easy and many feel as if the technology is overwhelming. The point, that we need to provide support and time for educators to become familiar with the possibilities presented in our digital environment, is key. We are also exploring the idea of using the school's physical space as a neighbourhood of learning to include the community and utilize the facilities. In an ideal world, I would like to see the building become wireless so that learning can take place anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

  4. Hi Nicole - interesting we share the same last name, especially since it's somewhat an uncommon name. Nothing like MTBing on the north shore!

    I think the changes come slowly in education by enlisting more and more people in the conversation about possibilities. The trick will be to continue to innovate in a time where budgets to do so are vanishing.

    Your comment about teachers, technology, and overwhelming strike a cord. I facilitated a learning team of 7 grade K-5 teachers last year looking at the question of whether smart boards can transform learning for students. They went through the proverbial "dip" of dispair and "time" (required to learn) was their most talked about worry. They came out of the dip encouraged and commited to learning more. They weren't yet convinced smart boards transform learning but they did transform their teaching - this year they hope to prove the former.

    Wireless is essential to eliminating barriers for teachers and students for sure. The more barriers to ease of use removed the more likely teachers will continue to take the next step. Building design is essential to supporting the changes we hope to see.

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.


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