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Flexible Learning Spaces for an Uncertain Future

"Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style. Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it."
—Le Corbusier, architect/designer, 1920

Hillary Greene

Corbusier wrote these words as a reaction to the influx of new technologies and surging urban populations in Europe that threatened the old order of design. Even as perhaps the leading innovator of the time, Corbusier admitted it was hard to see the future from the vantage of the present.

Schools might occupy a similar blind spot today. How can we design schools for the future if the present itself changes so frequently?

In architecture, one way to look forward is to look back. I'll focus on middle school. The classic design, which I experienced as a child and now as a teacher, reflects what has been our factory model of education. The child moves down a long line each day, receiving different knowledge from successive compartments occupied by content-knowledge specialists. And the people in charge reside near the front door, the face of the whole operation.

Our built environments powerfully shape our experiences, and even if schools or teachers wanted to experiment with new forms of collaboration or innovation, it's hard to do so in spaces that were designed for another model of education.

So, just like Corbusier, we're living in a fortunate time where the innovation is so abundant as to require a reexamination of the structures we inhabit. The challenge is how to design for a future that's unknown.

The key, then, of future design should be flexibility of spaces to account for the fact that so many factors of education—technology, pedagogy, funding—change too quickly to design for in any permanent way.

That said, this is our chance to design for what we hope will last in education. If I were designing, I'd consider:

  • A variety of student spaces to accommodate a range of learners and specialists
  • Collaborative office spaces for teachers (Do we need our own desks anymore?)
  • Administrators more centrally than frontally located
  • Design to enhance our humanity, not our technology
  • Couches ... seriously.

Corbusier also wrote: "The business of Architecture is to establish emotional relationship by means of raw materials." Even if we can't yet discern everything the future will bring to schools, we know that we value collaboration, creativity, empathy, and learning in all forms. If our design affirms our human relationships, which are at the heart of any productive learning experience, then there will be room for all innovation that comes our way.

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