Time to re-think?

Photo Credit: Derek Wenmoth

School buildings should be opened and used twenty four hours a day. 

Nikki Giovanni

Question: What do schools and shopping malls have in common?

Answer: We’re still building them based on an outdated premise.

The image at the top of this post was taken on the door of a store in a shopping mall I visited during my trip to the US recently. The mall was the size of some of the larger ones we have here in New Zealand, and more than half of the shops inside were like this one – closed. There were two other malls of similar size within just a few kilometres of where I was staying – one was like this one, only partially tenanted, while the other existed with only one store still operating.

It was a rather eerie experience walking through these empty spaces – with my mind imagining what they might have been like a decade or so ago with the shops all open and the hustle of customers in the concourse. You can’t help but wonder ‘why’ has this happened?

On previous trips to the US over the past five years or so I’ve seen the same thing in many of the states I visited – the demise of the shopping mall. According to a Business Insider article a shrinking middle class, the rise of online shopping, and the fact that there were simply too many malls are all reasons contributing to the decline of the American mall. And so they sit there, empty shells, languishing in the absence of shoppers and the ‘buzz’ that was generated in their heyday of the 1980s and 1990s.

Certainly, the convenience of online shopping will have played a big part in all of this. But simply making things available online wasn’t a guarantee of success – the customers needed to change their purchasing behaviour and this required being convinced of the benefits etc. Once those benefits were realised (e.g. convenience, availability, cost comparing etc.) – together with factors such as disruptions caused by health or weather events – we saw online shopping become more ‘normalised’ and the gradual demise of large malls begin.

Of course, there is a counter argument about the value of malls in that they provide convenient social gathering spaces – which is why most have an abundance of dining options, playgrounds, cinemas etc built into them. In the ’empty’ malls I visited those things were certainly the things still operating – however, without the retail outlets operating even they were struggling to survive. The issue of finding places where we as humans can congregate in our communities isn’t diminished, however – we simply find alternatives I guess.

So the question must be asked – if you were to consider building a shopping precinct in a community today what would it look like? Probably not the same as these, now abandoned ones.

Which brings me to thinking about schools. Like the shopping mall, there is a shift towards more virtual and online experiences, as well as a growing desire for personalised and flexible options. As we are seeing in the case of US shopping malls this has led to a decline in demand for traditional brick-and-mortar spaces, as people look for more convenient and customised ways to access goods and services.

Similarly, in education, the rise of online and virtual learning, as well as the growing focus on personalized and flexible learning, could lead to a decline in demand for traditional physical schools. As more learners and families look for ways to customize their learning experiences, they may turn to virtual schools, homeschooling, or other alternative learning models. In addition, other factors such as population growth, urbanisation, and climate change will also influence how schools are designed and built in the future.

The current truancy and absentee statistics might suggest that students are already voting with their feet, no longer finding attendance at school something they value or feel drawn to in order to fulfil their academic, social, cultural or sporting needs. The current response of sending people out to bring them back to school assumes that schools are “good”, but that isn’t the experience of many of these learners.Is it time we considered an entirely different way of thinking about schools and schooling – including how we design and use the physical buildings we call schools?

While it’s difficult to predict the future with certainty, it seems likely that we will still need physical school buildings for the foreseeable future. While advances in technology have enabled remote learning and online education, there are still many benefits to having a physical school building.

For one, school buildings provide a structured environment in which learning activities can be planned, facilitated and safely managed. They also provide access to resources such as libraries, laboratories, and specialised equipment that may be necessary for certain subjects. Additionally, physical schools provide opportunities for socialisation and collaboration with peers, including the various forms of social, sporting and cultural events that make up the typical school calendar. These things play an important part in a student’s education and personal development.

There is little argument, however, for continuing to build schools based solely on single classroom spaces with one teacher and one class, based on one subject for one hour of tuition. This traditional model of education is increasingly being challenged, as educators and researchers recognise the need for more innovative and student-centred approaches to learning.

Research shows that students learn best when they are engaged in active and collaborative learning experiences, and when they have opportunities to explore and pursue their own interests and passions. This requires a more flexible and adaptable learning environment, with spaces that can be easily reconfigured for different types of learning activities and group sizes.

More importantly, the traditional model of education is increasingly being criticised for its lack of relevance to real-world challenges and its failure to prepare students for success in the 21st-century workforce and to thrive as productive and contributing citizens in society. As such, there is growing interest in educational models that emphasise project-based learning, interdisciplinary studies, and the integration of technology into the learning process.

We must recognise as well that the traditional model of education often fails to adequately address the needs of diverse learners, including those with disabilities, English language learners, and students from marginalised backgrounds. As such, there is a growing emphasis on designing learning environments that are inclusive, accessible, and supportive of all learners.

Taking all of this into account it seems likely that the role of physical school buildings will evolve in the future. For example, learning spaces should become more adaptable spaces to allow for use for a variety of activities beyond traditional classroom instruction.

It has to be acknowledged here that there are significant differences between shopping malls and schools. Unlike shopping malls, schools serve a critical social and cultural function, providing students with opportunities to learn and grow in a supportive and diverse community. For example, there is a growing recognition that schools should serve as central community hubs, providing not only traditional learning spaces but also access to a wide range of support services that can benefit students, families, and the broader community.

Research has shown that the co-location of support services such as healthcare, mental health counselling, and social services in a school contributes to students being more likely to be successful in school and in life. By providing access to these services in a familiar and accessible location, schools can help remove barriers to access and ensure that all students have the support they need to thrive.

By hosting community events and offering facilities for community use, schools can help build social capital and strengthen connections among community members. A good example of this is the way many schools are used as civil defence headquarters during emergencies, along with providing venues for community participation in sporting or cultural events.

In addition to thinking about how the physical design of schools might accommodate greater community-level access and use, it will be important to consider the role of virtual and online learning when designing schools of the future, as these technologies have become an increasingly important part of modern education. They should be designed with accessibility in mind, ensuring that all students have access to the technology and resources they need for online and virtual learning. This includes features such as assistive technology, high-speed internet access, device access and digital resources that can be accessed and used in a variety of ways to meet the needs of individual learners.

As we experienced during the COVID lockdowns, the importance of designing for hybrid learning environments will be essential into the future as we face increasing forms of disruption that mean schools are closed or are unable to be accessed by groups of staff and/or students for periods of time. Future schools should be designed with the flexibility to support hybrid learning environments, which combine in-person and online learning, and enable the seamless transitioning between on and off-site learning. This could include spaces that are equipped with technology to support virtual learning, as well as spaces for small-group and one-on-one instruction.

All of this will require a re-think about how teaching and learning is organised and the spaces that enable new ways of working. Central to this must be a focus on promoting collaboration and communication between teachers and students, regardless of whether they are learning in-person or online. This could include features such as more open or connecting learning environments as well as the provision of videoconferencing capabilities, online discussion forums, and collaborative software tools.

This focus on collaboration and connectivity should extend to thinking about how individual schools can be conceived as part of a network of educational provision by forming partnerships and links with other schools and education providers in order to meet the learning needs of their students and staff. This might include the sharing of resources and expertise, enabling students to access a wider range of learning opportunities, including sharing teaching materials, expertise in certain subjects, and access to specialised equipment or facilities.

Schools might also form partnerships with other schools, universities, and community organisations to offer joint programs and learning experiences. This could include collaborative research projects, mentorship programs, and cross-disciplinary learning opportunities. Besides being of value to learners, such partnership arrangements can be of value to teachers also, providing valuable professional learning opportunities as well as ‘horizontal’ career pathways.

Besides partnering with other educational institutions, conceiving of schools as part of a network of provision could include other community spaces (e.g. libraries, museums, sporting facilities etc.) and businesses as centres of learning. Such relationships provide opportunities to extend the ‘reach’ of learning experiences for students – beyond simply for educational field trips and visits. For example, greater use may be made of internships for students, providing them with hands-on learning experiences and opportunities to apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Properly established, the experience that students gain in these environments may be considered just as valuable as traditional in-class learning, and be assessed with new forms of credential that recognises the learning taking place.

Many schools currently include various types of service learning projects in their calendar of events, where students can engage in meaningful community service while also learning important skills and concepts. Traditionally these haven’t counted as part of any formal learning programme, but what if these too could become a more regular part of some student’s learning, with the particular skills and competencies being developed and demonstrated in these contexts being recognised and credentialed accordingly?

So where to start? From my personal experience of having worked with a wide range of schools – both new builds and remodelling of existing structures, here’s what I suggest..

  1. Start with examining your beliefs: what do you, your staff and your community believe is important for your learners – now and into the future? What do you believe is important for them to learn, and what is important about how they learn? Ensure you take the time to explore the foundations for these beliefs – what supports your view?
  2. Articulate a vision: Building on your beliefs, develop a clear vision of what you want your learning environment to be like. What kinds of learning experiences do you want your students to have? What kind of environment do you want to create? By having a clear vision, you can better focus your efforts and communicate your goals to others. This process should also include the articulation of your mission and identification of values to guide all future decisions and activity.
  3. Collaborate with colleagues: This process isn’t a solo effort – or something decided by a leadership group and then imposed on others. Look for opportunities to collaborate with other educators, both within your school and outside of it. Share ideas, resources, and strategies for creating more innovative and engaging learning experiences.
  4. Embrace technology: There’s no doubt technology will play an essential role in the learning activity of our students into the future. Actively seek to incorporate technology into your teaching to enhance learning outcomes and prepare students for the digital world. Consider using online resources, educational apps, or interactive whiteboards to engage your students and promote learning.
  5. Personalise learning: Seek to understand the interests, learning styles, and abilities of each of your students. Use data and assessment tools to identify areas where students need extra support, and provide differentiated instruction to meet their individual needs.
  6. Shift the ownership of learning: You’ll crumble under the weight of it all if you try to do all of this alone. Seek out ways of building learner agency by shifting the ownership of the learning to include your learners in decisions about what is learned, how it is learned, who it is learned with etc. Give your students more opportunities to take control of their own learning. Encourage them to ask questions, pursue their own interests, and work together to solve problems.
  7. Create adaptable learning spaces: Consider rearranging furniture, using moveable walls or screens, or incorporating different types of seating to create more dynamic and collaborative learning environments.
  8. Connect with the community: Look for ways to connect your classroom with the wider community. Consider inviting guest speakers, taking field trips, or collaborating with local organisations to give your students real-world learning experiences. Find out where the pockets of expertise are that you can call on – and look to build longer term relationships and partnerships in the process.
  9. Understand that all learning is culturally located: Ensure your are operating in ways that are culturally responsive, with a focus on valuing diversity, promoting cultural understanding, and recognising the unique cultural backgrounds and experiences of students. Include parents and whānau in your thinking here.

I began with a provocation that, like the malls I saw in the US, we might consider whether our schools could suffer a similar fate. I don’t actually think that will be the case – as I’ve argued above. But I am convinced that as we design and build new schools and re-develop existing ones, we must be thinking very differently about what they will look like, how they will operate, who they will cater for etc, and so my thoughts in this post are really intended to provide some food for thought for any school leaders, boards. of trustees or ministry officials who may be contemplating such activity.

3 thoughts on “Time to re-think?

  1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if different parts of government and local government would collaborate to design multi purpose social uses for school campuses 24 x 7 x 365. The capacity utilization is so low given school terms and school hours

  2. Interesting article Derek. With the Government allocating a large amount of money to relocate schools on the East Coast, it seems to me a great opportunity to look at these ideas. A follow up was the item on TV One News Sunday night (14th May) where students isolated because of a bridge being washed out were taught in the home of a teacher. The teacher integrated core subjects with experiential learning. Food for thought.

    1. I agree Alan, this is exactly the sort of opportunity we need to be preparing for – pro-actively, rather than reactively by preference.

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