Geoff Johnson: Educators should be consulted in design of new schools

Since September 2017, the province has approved nearly $2.3 billion for new and expanded schools, seismic upgrades and replacements, as well as land purchases for future schools to ensure demand will be met.

These investments, according to ministry sources, include 40 new or expanded schools that are creating 13,280 new student seats, and seismic upgrades or replacements at 54 schools throughout the province.

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So far so good. Included in those 40 schools are 11 secondary schools set to get new buildings, additions or seismic-related replacements.

That means it’s both an exciting and ­challenging time for the school districts involved — exciting because the opportunity to redesign or build a new secondary school does not come along very often, and ­challenging because designing a school for the future of secondary education will require foresight and imagination.

When Douglas Cardinal, Canada’s ­eminent architect and designer of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., spoke to a conference of architects in Vancouver in the early 1990s, he began by saying “buildings speak to people,” meaning that the building itself, its purpose, design and the functional relationships of its components, can deliver a powerful message to those who occupy it every day of its life.

Cardinal said the first step in creating a building is a clear statement of purposes, intentions and goals. Once you declare your vision, he said, you have created the ­possibility that it can occur.

Other considerations, perhaps more ­pragmatic, will tend to drive the design.

As more than one architect told me ­during the planning of a new secondary school in the mid-1990s: “We’ve built schools before and we know what we’re doing.” No need for a discussion about how a modern school could be different from schools of yesterday.

And that’s not good enough, because architects of school buildings in 2021 should be involved with educators at all levels in the development of a vision of environments needed for teaching and learning for the next 50 years or so.

We now understand, for example, that learning is an active, not a passive, process.

The student’s active involvement will include, among other things, a clear ­understanding of what is to be learned and why, and how it will be evaluated. In other words, the student incrementally assumes a greater part of the responsibility and control of the learning process.

That has major implications for the design of teaching and learning environments.

We also know that learning is both an ­individual and a social process. In its visionary document “Shifting Minds,” the Conference Board of Canada identifies, among other competencies the 21st century will demand of graduating students, the ability to collaborate effectively and respectfully with others in creating new ideas, solving ­problems and managing conflicts.

That also has major implications for the nature of the spaces inside the building.

Unfortunately, until now at least, it has been assumed that groups of 20 to 30 students in an 80-square-metre classroom will be taught and learn in the same way and at the same time, as if there is no difference between them.

Now, an abundance of research into ­learning environments has resulted in common agreement that the nature and principles of both individual and group learning might actually be defeated by the ­anachronistic design of traditionally organized school buildings.

A 21st-century secondary school will be a building that, as Cardinal implies,­ ­recognizes both the acquisition and application of knowledge, as well as the future ­expectations of both higher education and the world of employment — expectations that bear little resemblance to the world of even 20 years ago.

As one simple example, the school we built in the 1990s had (and still has) channels set in the floors to enable wired computer networking. WiFi and Bluetooth, students researching and sharing results online — who knew? — and that was just 25 years ago.

So while those 11 new or refurbished ­secondary schools are still at the design stage, it is important to consider that ­teaching tools, learning models and student behaviours will continue to evolve as the century evolves.

School designs will not only be shaped around new knowledge about teaching and learning, but that knowledge will shape unanticipated possibilities. Tomorrow’s schools and, just as ­importantly, the preparation of teachers to instruct in tomorrow’s schools, will need to progress beyond the educational needs of today.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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