A modern learning environment should reflect everything we know about building a community, developing young people, and providing a healthy environment for human beings. We know that people, no matter their age, feel better and are more productive in spaces that are comfortable, clean, and suited to their individual needs. When leaders make these choices — in fact, insist on them — it shows respect for the people who inhabit them.
If we take the time, we can structure learning environments that meet all the needs of children and the adults who teach them. Yes, of course they should be safe, secure, and healthy. But we can go further. We can make these spaces more flexible so that the inhabitants have control over aspects that matter to them. We can make them quieter, calmer, and more comfortable. Most of all, we can use design to improve learning opportunities for everyone.
Prakash Nair, a futurist, planner, and architect with Fielding Nair International, a leading architectural firm specializing in school design, says, “Rather than simply be invested in short-term fixes, any new support for school facilities that districts receive should go to develop tomorrow’s facilities as infrastructure responses to an educational philosophy—one whose goal is not to control students, but to empower them to take charge of their own learning.”
We can build spaces that diminish the distinction between the “control spaces” – such as teacher desks, podiums, projection screens, and the “controlled spaces” – student desks facing the front, electronics that are not controlled by the user, locked thermostats, loud bells and intercoms that interrupt at will, etc.
We can give design projects large and small over to students. Why can’t students help design a new classroom, community space, or play space? But this can’t just be an imaginary project, some generic “school of the future.” Why can’t they do it with their real environments?
This creates natural collaboration opportunities with peers and experts of all sorts, provides challenges at many levels, and, best of all, is really useful. Giving students this kind of responsibility creates a win-win situation where students are valued for their expertise and hard work – real, needed work!
All of this has to do with respect:
- Respect for the inhabitants by flexibly addressing needs of mind, body, and soul
- Respect for the community by designing a welcoming space that lives in harmony with its surroundings
- Respect for the communal and the individual
- Respect for nature by creating sustainable, green spaces
- Respect for learning and the importance school has for our community, nation, and world
- Respect for tradition balanced with respect for progress and new ideas
- Respect and celebration of all aspects of the human spirit that education aspires to. Learning is not just about math or taking spelling tests. The goal of education should be that art and science flourish together, so that young people can imagine and become their best selves.
This sense of respect, belonging, and shared responsibility is the essence of citizenship and leadership. When we show young people that we care about them, we communicate that what they do matters and is valued by the whole community. Respect for others, communicated through the design of educational spaces is leadership that can change lives and make the world a better place.