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?


  1. What an interesting article, Brian. I ended up annotating several spots where you talked about learning. First, with regard to secondary design, I am excited about the design features of University Hill Secondary. I believe that we must move towards the kind of learning environment envisioned in that design. \

    I also think we have to go there, if we want the next generation of learners to do better than those described by Bauerlein. While the quote from his book seems bleak, I think he has made some good points. I know we are graduating "successfully" a large number of students, but I think we need to be careful not to assume the way we graduate them, or what they know and can do, are particularly brilliant. I worry whether the blah-blah approach to teaching and learning still too often used, is fostering enough useful ideas and information, never mind thinking skills.

    Back to the new Centennial, I hope that we take good care to allow for the transition you discuss towards the end of your post. At the same time, do not allow that transition idea to entirely drive the design of the building, because the design committee could talk/work its way very quickly out of the creative design, back toward the bells and cells structure we have today. Teaching staff, students and parents are not so easily going to change from one way of being to another. That said, I truly believe we have to apply pressure through design if we want the transition to occur - change cannot be optional, and we don't have time - generations pass quickly!

    As the principal of a school also being rebuilt (James Park), I feel a responsibility to begin now developing a vision for the educational and social environment that will bring our practices into the 21st Century - the new school is the driver. So, we are already talking about such a vision, and the next two years will be spent moving towards it - learning to use technology effectively to enhance skills and learning; differentiating instruction so all learners can be successful, allowing for the messy feel of that; and helping our students become self-regulated learners by developing their curiousity and allowing them to move forward at their own pace.

    I am conscious at the Design Team meetings that we can easily end up with long narrow hallways again and closed classrooms, in which it will be so much easier to go back to the educational habits we've developed since the early 20th century.

    Ken Robinson always inspires me, and everyone has likely seen these video clips on Edutopia, but I'll include the link for Part I ... easy to find Part II after that. Very interesting way to spend 20 minutes. http://www.edutopia.org/sir-ken-robinson-creativity-video (I need to learn how to do a proper link!)

  2. Petra - good point about the design panel getting "talked out of" being creative. There are definite tensions at work. Innovation in school design isn't new - there are many failures one could point to. The problem isn't necessarily new design but rather insufficient investment in preparing people (teachers, principals, parents) for the change in purpose for the building. Pretty much what you describe for your school - taking the time to prepare people for the change - most important.

    Thanks for sharing Ken Robinson's video - I always enjoy his thinking!

  3. Brian, I applaud your efforts, for this is the kind of transition steps we must take to move to a system of education that is lifelong, begins at conception by training parents how to parent and teach, makes everyone a student and a teacher, decentralizes education so that it happens everywhere constantly, and ultimately ends for each of us a few days after our death as our community takes a few moments to consider the lessons to be learned from our life well led.

    My only concern is the feeling of deja vu. Open classrooms had good intentions, but lacked the support of society and teacher unions to succeed. Alternative schools based on student-led curriculum succumbed to standardized testing. Yours is a great project, and it is part of a larger wave of consideration of the way people learn; it's a good thing that you are doing. If seen as it breaks on shore, that wave looks powerful. But it's not close to shore – it is a small ripple on the ocean of current education dogma and I wonder how it can possibly pull us out of the rut we are in.

    I am convinced that the only way to change the minds of a culture, a world, is to detail a vision, gain the endorsement of all governments, then announce the transition plan has begun. There are a few hundred other steps that have to take place, of course, but the essence is top-down in order to affect sweeping change. This will not happen overnight, as yours will, relatively speaking. But I see this as a 75- to 100-year project. Look how long it took us to get trapped in the capital-intensive, unreliably performing system we have now! A few thoughts along those lines can be found on www.allnewpubliceducation.com, where I welcome your thoughts and input.

    Congratulations, keep at it, and report back with pictures so we can all celebrate your success.

    Stephen Dill

  4. Stephen: yes we've reflected on the schools with out walls of the past. Teachers soon "built" their own walls didn't they. Your view that top-down is the answer is interesting. We talk alot about steering from the top but leading from the bottom. Top-down generally gets compliance, barely, but bottom-up movements can change a country, the world. We are consulting directly with teachers, parents, students, and our community for this project. Staff development will be woven into the change. Since this is an existing school to be replaced, current staff will have over two years to decide whether they share the vision or not - if not, they will be able to move to a different school.

    We hope we're on the right track with this approach. Time will tell though hey. I'll try to post updates from time to time, and include pix when we have some. Thanks for your input.


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