Monday, March 1, 2010

What should secondary schools look like in the future?

I wrote a post Schools of the Future back in January 2010 where I talked about our District’s Conceptual Design Group’s mission and asked for input on school design.  Today our Design Group met to discuss secondary school and specifically the replacement of imageCentennial Secondary school (website) established in 1967.   Schools have been designed for many years to support a very teacher centric model of education.  The architect took us through options for locating the school, fields, and parking on the site – lots of pragmatic stuff.  Then we started looking at some innovative designs to influence the future Centennial.

We first looked at the proposed design for the new University Hill Secondary school in the Vancouver School Board on the University of British Columbia campus – the school is being replaced.  Some of the design features we found interesting include:
  • envisioned as a project based, student centric, collaborative teaching, learner engaging school
  • rather than organized by departments, multiple learning communities or learning studios (Randall Fielding) for 120-150 students with core subjects, shared project space, lockers / social / work spaces, microwaves, sinks, etc.
  • streets of learning (hallways) with learning cul de sac’s (classrooms)
  • recasting technology trades programs as “pre-engineering” and embedding computer technology use
  • learning commons like a Starbucks, relaxed, soft seating, surrounded by counselor offices, seminar rooms, conference rooms, professional room (teacher work room)
    • a meeting place for teachers and students
    • not structured
    • serves online learners with a physical meeting space and access to learning coaches (counselors, teachers)
  • interior garage doors everywhere to easily open up spaces
  • roof top teaching spaces for outdoor, environment, etc.
We then entered into a discussion of student centered, self direction vs. teacher centric education.  The suggestion is that an information and communications technology embedded school lends itself more to students figuring things out on their own.  You know, they’re “Digital Natives” and we are the “Digital Immigrants”…  I used to advocate this view but over the past year have reconsidered this. Yes, kids get technology, they can pretty much figure out out to plug it in, install software, use all the features, etc.   Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation, takes a different perspective on “screen time”.  His premise as I recall it is that technology use has captivated young people (and we adults have not provided enough guidance) and has helped develop people who
“do not read literature (or fully know how to), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), or vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot).  They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount fundamental facts of American (insert your country here) history, or name any of their local political representatives.  What they do happen to excel at is – each other.” (back flap).
I tend to agree that students left to themselves in using technology will typically use it well socially and for entertainment (I’m not talking about gifted students, rather the rest).  I think that they still need regular guidance and at the appropriate times, direct teaching, for them to achieve knowledge, wisdom, real expertise. 

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes approximately 10,000 hours (or about 10 years) to become an expert at something.  I believe that true expertise comes with both time (practice, experience) and learning from others (mentors, teachers, experts).  Certainly there should be self-direction baked into the modern approach to education but not exclusively.

Back to secondary school design.  We talked about very different designs where there are a variety of learning spaces, sizes, and nothing resembling a classroom fit for 30 students.  We agreed that staff development is crucial to helping teachers adapt to change.  I think there’s definitely a need to re-envision the design but I fear swinging the pendulum from mostly traditional to fully different where we assume we’ve been doing everything wrong.  For example, a change from teaching all students one way (teacher centric) to turning them loose as totally independent learners (student centric).  We discussed this today… and felt that we need school spaces that are flexible enough to help teachers, students, and families transition perhaps in a few significant steps.  As well, not all students have a preferred learning style that is independent and self directed or perhaps only in some areas.  We acknowledged that we already enjoy significant success for students in our current schools.  Really what’s needed are spaces that support the best of both worlds, and support differentiation for a variety of student learning preferences.  The current method of education and the buildings that support this, are not entirely broken, rather they’re in need of some significant adaptation.

I’d like to hear from others on this.  What thoughts and ideas might you add to this?  What does a building with flexible learning (and teaching) spaces look like for you?  Anyone disagree with this like of thinking?