School design architect Prakesh Nair is a crusader for 21st century schools who believes that “the classroom has been obsolete for several decades.” In a July 2011 Education Week commentary, the visionary leader of Fielding Nair International claimed that the classroom was “the most visible symbol of a failed system” — an archaic system of “classroom-based schools.” “The classroom is obsolete, ” he added, and that’s a problem because it was now “established science.”
Nair’s visionary speeches, writings, and designs provoke an immediate reaction in the real educational world. Concerned parents and teachers invariably raise their hand or take to an education blog exclaiming : “But the open classroom experiment of the ’70s was a dismal failure.” It does raise a fundamental question, one recently posed by The Globe and Mail’s Kate Hammer – ” If open concept was a flop, why are we going back?”
Futurists like Nair are resurrecting the Open Concept School and presenting that model of school design as the key to re-engineering schools for 21st century learning, preparing students for the Digital Workplace. His firm, based in Minneapolis, MN, has designed 400 schools in 36 different countries, and is now establishing a beachhead in Western Canada. Nair and his partner Randy Fielding have completely sold the Regina Public Schools on the idea and are building one in Vancouver, Lord Kitchener Elementary School.
The new Open Concept Schools touted by Fielding Nair International are based explicitly upon “education design principles for tomorrow’s schools.” Classroom-based schools are considered a “relic” of the Industrial Revolution, and they are seeking to re-invent schools to promote critical thinking, collaboration, and flexibility among students. The first six of the dozen underlying principles reaffirm the return of “progressive education” ideas in a new guise: “1) personalized; 2) safe and secure, 3) inquiry-based, 4) student-centered, 5) collaborative, and 6) interdisciplinary. “ Grafted onto the list are: “7) rigorous and hands-on, 8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations, 9) environmentally conscious, 10) connected to the community, 11) globally networked, and 12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.”
The Fielding Nair schools, and others of similar design, are visually impressive, but largely based upon contemporary design theory rather than school-based research. One of Canada’s few school design academics, Dr. Neil Gislason, author of Building Innovation, is skeptical about the firm’s claims and the likelihood of ready teacher acceptance. He finds the new design environments, like the old Open Concept model, to be too susceptible to exterior noise, distractions, and disciplinary interruptions. Today, with the higher proportion of “special needs” children, he sees great potential for distractions.
School design architects like Nair are inclined to base their designs upon the “form follows function” principle. Perhaps that is why, whatever the intention, the new designs tend to conform with so-called “progressive” learning theories and to undervalue the need for more contained learning spaces better suited to direct instruction and knowledge-based pedagogy. They also completely ignore or are oblivious to the many studies documenting the decline and fall of “open concept” schools and classrooms from 1968 until 1979.
Open area school design is making a comeback, in spite of the evidence that it failed miserably three decades ago. Most of the initial research on open area learning was driven by its proponents and it virtually evaporated in the late 1970s when teachers and parents intervened to undo the damage inflicted by such “experiments” with open, largely unsupervised or regulated “learning spaces.”
What happened to restore order to those chaotic and “learn at your own pace” classroom environments? Regular classroom teachers, supported by parents, asserted their autonomy and showed remarkable ingenuity in fashioning “purposeful learning environments” out of the seeming chaos.
One British Columbia teacher, M. Costa, has described the response in the trenches of teaching. Writing in Educational Insights (March 2004), Costa artfully described the “teacher adaptations” rendering open area schools suitable for teaching students much more effectively. “The lack of walls and the absence of barriers,” he wrote, proved unbearable in many schools as “noise” was “amplified through sheer aggregation.” Voices, moving desks, cabinet doors opening, footsteps, pencil sharpening, PA announcements, cries, shouts, and laughter made it next-to-impossible for students or teachers to concentrate on their lessons. Teachers responded instinctively, creating partitions, hiving-off quiet areas, and successfully lobbying for the return of self-contained classrooms.
Curricular programs that demand effective teaching, quiet reflection, and analysis will never go out of fashion, especially with today’s parents. Special needs children also thrive in quiet, safe, and secure learning environments free from student traffic, noise, and distractions. Taken together, academically able students and “special needs” kids represent a significant proportion of today’s students and they will continue to thrive better in smaller, contained classrooms where the focus is on learning not fraternizing with your peers.
Why are Classroom-Based Schools under attack, again, in public education? Will the “Learning Suite” design models ever supplant the traditional classroom, especially in Canadian high schools? Why in the world are regular classroom teachers rarely consulted in the initial design of today’s schools? Why do school design architects like Fielding and Nair simply ignore the lessons of the past?