A popular phrase about structures of any kind is that they reflect the purpose for which they are built. The specific phrase is “form follows function.”
It is easy to tell the difference between a church and a granary. It is more difficult to discern one retail storefront from another but that is because both buildings perform the same function: retail sales. The same is true of factories and school buildings. It is hard to tell the difference. Is our perception of a good learning environment similar to the workstations in a factory?
One could argue that both the factory and the school are built as inexpensively as possible therefore they appear similar. The factory gains profit; the school gains nothing unless the school philosophy is to produce factory workers.
That architecture reflects the philosophy of operation within the structure cannot be denied. Many art museum buildings are an art form in themselves; many libraries reflect the classical look of history; many Christian churches have a cross-shaped nave and chancel. Why must schools look like factories?
Despite the factory exterior, many schools are reorganizing student space within the building, especially elementary schools. Rooms are larger and encourage movement and dialogue with other students instead of sitting in desks all in a row and remaining quiet. Many elementary schools encourage free access to the library and computers to encourage intellectual stimulation. Many elementary schools have programs that take the students out of the building altogether to teach firsthand the topic to be studied. Team building and task sharing are an integral part of the lesson plan.
Slowly, this philosophy is percolating up through middle school and high school. The issue is that teaching in a creative environment is more expensive. Children learn much more rapidly when they have the teacher’s individual attention. This means classes must be smaller – requiring more teachers per student, more teacher aides, more square feet of space per child, more expensive materials to promote creative learning, and not a small issue, much more involvement by parents. Because the cost is tied to property taxes, sufficient funding for schools has been denied from the beginning. Property taxes are not a flexible source; they rise slowly and often are subject to local referendum as well, neither of which reflects a desire to fund schools properly. State legislatures are renowned for taking the axe to education funding.
Beyond the issue of architecture is raising the professional quality of teachers. Requiring teachers to be better than they are also means raising the salary to a level that will attract teachers with better education, better experience, and have a better aptitude for teaching. Current teachers are threatened with a shortened career and do not want to be reviewed; property owners and legislators do not want to pay for better teachers. When neither side is interested in genuine improvement, it is a steep, steep hill to climb for change.
The United States has slipped to twenty-seventh in education quality among the world’s nations and continues to slip under the existing model. The Federal Government will not consider footing the bill or even part of it. Education quality differs from state to state and from lower economic class to higher economic class.
The mariner often refers to the phenomenon of chaos in society – a moment when the stresses and failures suddenly create a large change in the culture. Education is one of the major contributors to growing stress that will lead to a chaotic event.
Back to architecture, two companies that thrive on team attitude, intelligence, and creativity are Microsoft and Google. True, their architecture is well funded but it sets an example for the education of children in all grades. There is plenty of common space, recreational and intellectual diversions, flexible hours, good food in an airy cafeteria, places for family time, and even babysitting services. The employees are the adults in these firms rather than the children but the policy accommodates family visiting. If public schools want to draw parents into the school, what would be better than a common space where parents would feel welcome and their child could be with them at any time of the day?
Finally, it is time to put down a few sacred cows.
Get rid of summer vacation. Instead, provide plenty of three-day weekends.
Get rid of the Education major in college programs. College students should become experts in a field of knowledge, taking a minor in education. The true test of success is an aptitude test – a dirty word to teachers.
Flip the teaching process. Students learn at home from videos on the Internet sponsored by the school. During school hours, they practice what they learned the night before. Besides making it easier for the student, the parents more easily participate in what their children are learning.
Feed the children healthy menus that they will eat. Exchanging a hamburger for a spinach salad will not work.
Finally, from the mariner’s own experience in schools, provide lots and lots of natural light. One cannot have too much natural light.