We’re designing schools of the future with tools of the past—and it’s hurting our education

How far have we really come?
How far have we really come?
Image: AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
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The way we learn has changed dramatically over the past few decades—so it makes sense that the places where we learn should change dramatically as well. Continuing to create concrete boxes with fixed walls and rigid classroom spaces makes as much sense as investing in floppy disks.

It’s been a few decades since powerful computers first started arriving in schools and classrooms. These new-age tools and other similar education technologies promised to transform the way schools functioned, in the process changing how teachers taught and how students learned. At the same time, the education community has invested considerable time and money training teachers, modernizing curriculums, and rethinking the way children learn effectively.

But while these improvements represent a good start, they’re not enough. What’s been missing from the equation is a re-examination of the actual school itself.

To make all these investments work, we need to create a physical space where qualified teachers, eager students, and powerful tools can come together. For many people, unfortunately, such a place doesn’t exist.

Consider Julie, a 4th-grade teacher who recently acquired a smart board for her class. Her students are beyond excited to have a touch-screen toy to use in the room, but Julie’s room has no way to moderate light levels, so her students struggle to see the screen because of the sun’s glare. Even though money was invested in this powerful teaching technology, a poorly designed space is preventing Julie’s students from taking advantage of it.

Or take Jacques, a high-school principal in France who has been moving his teachers toward a project-based curriculum for the past year. Project-based learning (PBL) is an educational technique whereby students work in groups to solve challenges with real-world applications instead of attending traditional classroom lessons. Jacques was confident that his students would thrive as they worked together to solve problems in a hands-on way. But once the teachers started implementing PBL, it bombed—the group activities made too much noise in the old classrooms, and because their building was designed for solitary work like lectures and testing, there was never enough space. By changing the curriculum but ignoring the environment, Jacque’s teachers were set up for failure. Despite being qualified and excited about PBL, they were unable to provide students with a meaningful experience.

These problems are incredibly common. What makes it so inexplicable is the fact that we invest literally billions of dollars and years of effort into improvements in education around the world, but we fall short at the final step. We’re making leapfrog-like advancements in nearly every aspect of education, yet when it comes to thinking about and investing in the learning spaces themselves, we are woefully behind. We are building a state-of-the-art Formula 1 engine in the body of an old, broken-down Buick, and wondering why the car won’t go as fast as we thought it would.

It’s pretty easy to see how we got here. School design and construction is slow and costly, and it requires a hefty up-front investment. Taxpayers and political leaders are reluctant to jettison or significantly renovate buildings that are over 50 years old, even though they are simply incompatible with the needs of teachers and students today.

In the name of economic efficiency, school districts are designing and building facilities intended to serve unaltered for generations. But designing schools for longevity means that the design mistakes we make today will literally be set in concrete, stifling any advancements in education practices for decades to come. The world needs a better way to think about how schools are designed.

Through working with education leaders around the world, I have started looking at what types of spaces and construction ideas exist that allow for frequent changes. We’ve studied performance stages, urban marketplaces, and contemporary galleries. We’ve looked at nascent construction techniques and material ecologies, and even examined disruptive technologies such as advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, next-gen genomics, and autonomous vehicles in order to explore how these could shift the way we design, build, and utilize school buildings.

Through this research and our work designing and constructing education places, we have developed a concept that is more conducive to learning, adaptable over time, and cost- and time-efficient. We call it the School Box.

An example of the School Box learning space.
An example of a School Box learning space.
Image: Danish Kurani

The School Box concept is a catalogue of learning spaces that are continually updated with new trends and research in education and technology. Most importantly, all the education spaces in the School Box catalogue are kit-of-parts fabricated, allowing schools to easily move, update, and replace individual spaces as they need. Pre-fabrication of simple, interconnected parts provides maximum flexibility and can reduce construction cost and time tenfold. Shifting to a School Box model has the potential to be more accepting of the latest and best learning models and technologies that old space designs are undercutting.

It’s time to take on this problem of school design. The schools of tomorrow are being built today—but were designed three years ago. If we want to be ready for teaching and learning in the future, we have to try to close this gap. To have any chance at educating the next generation well, we need to design schools faster and smarter, and make them capable of supporting continuous advancements in teaching and tech.