A recent Slate piece on the design of school furniture is a great read and the Hive-project itself (both articles by Linda Perlstein) is an excellent endeavor. Serious creative thought should be given to the physical design of schools and it is exciting to see some public discussion, at least in the media, of how we conceive of and construct the spaces and places in our schools.
Perlstein notes some of the creative concepts Slate has received and she calls attention to an important design consideration. I have concerns, however, as I frequently do when there is minute focus, about the big picture…
School systems give short shrift to the physical needs of their students in other ways—they use school buses without seatbelts, send backpacks home filled with weighty textbooks, cut gym class to the bone, run jocks through sometimes life-threatening football drills, and serve junk food as part of the federal nutrition program. So it’s not surprising that few districts have bothered to improve their furniture, but it’s dismaying.
This is a valid point and Perlstein goes on the articulate some of the key technical reasons that changing furniture design is a particular challenge. My major concern is that the design of a school and the design of each of the classrooms and of each chair shouldn’t be based on any abstract set of principles or best practices. Design should be based on the purposes of the school and the needs of its members. School design should be an ongoing process.
Perlstein makes a pretty big assertion about schools and follows it with some generalizations about what will or will not happen in them which you can read and evaluate for yourself:
Education has changed even if the room has not, and if you go into most schools, you are likely to see teachers and students chafing against the rectangle.
I can’t argue that teachers and students are probably chafing, but I think “education has changed” is overstated. The basic grammar of schooling (Elmore) has, in fact, changed little.
In addition, Perlstein makes the strange claim that “no one has yet proved that better spaces mean better education.” She supports this claim, strangely, with research conducted by 21st Century School Fund, and while I haven’t had a chance to read the research yet (and I will certainly post when I do), in the summary Perlstein links to, the authors clearly state, “Recent research continues to point to a small but steadily positive relationship between the quality of a public school facility and a range of academic and community outcomes.” This finding seems more inline with common sense.
As an aside, I love that Slate and Perlstein are including work from students, in this piece. For years I have talked about creating a blog devoted only to pictures of schools. I hope Slate continues to expand this collection, it could be a lot more revealing.