Today’s school design reflects the greater emphasis on our digitally focused environments. But school communities need to be more physically networked to keep their connections in the world real

Mairi Johnson

The world seems to be changing at a faster rate than at any time in history but is it really all changing? 

Life in schools has certainly transformed in recent decades - there are interactive whiteboards, iPads and other hand-held devices around but has the core content of the curriculum really changed? Not much. All the digital wizardry may make the content more appealing and hopefully digestible but the substance of what is taught has been largely stable for some time now. So the biggest change in schools isn’t what pupils learn but how they are expected to learn it and what that means for their relationship with the real world, as opposed to the virtual.

There is increasing concern that children and young people are spending long hours every day indoors in front of screens and seldom go outside to experience the physical freedom that their parents enjoyed. It appears that, as society has embraced technology, we are in danger of letting our relationship with the real world fall away.

School design also reflects this change. The reduction in the size of classrooms and “float” space that could be used for larger circulation and interactive spaces could be justified by  saying that, as we became more digitally networked, school communities don’t need to be as physically networked and smaller spaces, in a cellular layout, are fine because all the connectivity that’s needed can happen online.

But things are different at university. Environments being created for higher education are deliberately designing-in spaces for physical networks at every scale. The invasion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has not had the transformational impact on academic life that was expected and universities are increasingly aware of the need to provide space for interaction and unplanned activities. For example, the new Hub building at Coventry University has 2,600m2 of flexible space for work and play which can be configured through arrangements of the furniture. Having a variety of learning spaces available is seen as vital to creating an effective, networked, learning community.

If university is a complete contrast to school environments, then we are storing up problems because young people entering higher education will be ill-equipped to navigate the different learning landscape of autonomy and choice.

Adulthood is going to be a place where information is always available and to hand so we don’t need school to teach us facts. What isn’t on-tap are discernment to help us to decide what all the facts mean, judgment and the ability to synthesise

Similarly, the world of work is one where self-determination and spatial flexibility are expected to go together. The best office environments will show some groups of desks where people are expected to interact and also informal seating areas, small group rooms and places to work alone. If young employees don’t know how to conduct themselves and make use of this variety, then they will be disadvantaged.

Adulthood is going to be a place where information is always available and to hand so we don’t need school to teach us facts. What isn’t on-tap are discernment to help us to decide what all the facts mean, judgment and the ability to synthesise - all the things we learn by interacting with other people and the world.

This doesn’t mean that schools should be the same as universities or workplaces but they need to equip their students to navigate those spaces. This preparation occurs through the unprescribed, hidden curriculum which covers the less quantifiable effects of being at school. These are matters such as socialising, co-operating in groups, playing outside and so on, none of which need a digital platform but take place against the potent stimulation of the real world. The parts of the school facilities that support these activities are the school grounds, dining areas and any place where the pupils are physically together but their activities are not completely pre-determined.

From this perspective, school grounds could offer a significant contribution to the education experience because they are usually the largest external area where pupils are allowed to be free, to explore, play and chat - activities that are vital to a richness of experience that supports genuine learning.

But what if there’s no money, no space and no heroic capital project on the horizon? How can a physically networked community be encouraged in humble surroundings? Again, the fixes aren’t new but are nonetheless they are worth reiterating: using the school grounds to their fullest extent, treating space as a resource rather than a territory so that what there is can be easily shared and different groups can take their turn at spreading out. Every small physical change has the potential to enable the school community to be better physically networked.

In the rush to the virtual future, we must not forget the value of the traditional and the real.

Mairi Johnson is global lead for the education sector at Aecom