How do you design a school?

This is construction season in the education world — when we rush to get to August with new and re-built spaces.

And I just finished working with the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education at the gigantic AIA Conference in New York.

I had the chance to present — with brilliant architects — on two subjects: School Safety and Security and Child Centered Design.

Of course these things go together: safe schools are not hardened — they are softer. I start where my superintendent, Pam Moran starts, when she says, “if you don’t want kids to slip through the cracks, stop designing schools with cracks.”

It is frustrating that we still must point out — as we invest in locking up buildings — that in 99% of school shootings there is no intruder — Sandy Hook the tragic exception — but rather angry, dangerous, troubled students. And, I told the architects, we can not build for the worst case,’ that’s absurd because you cannot prevent the worst case. People get shot in prisons despite some pretty significant ‘hardening.’

So, how do you start to design a school? Where do you start? We usually begin with a student count and/or a set of ages of kids, but, I am arguing now, that’s wrong.

We have often begun with, what do you want kids to do?” which is the essential question, but we can only do that because we have already answered the true starting question: What do you want kids to be?

What do you want your kids to be?

That’s the beginning. And where I work a fabulous answer was built in 2002. We call them Lifelong Learning Conpetencies, and these are our touchstone.

But these are only a start.

You want your kids to be safe? You want them to have a roof? Well sure, so do I. But damn, that’s setting our bar pretty low. Kids in Donald Trump’s cages are “safe,” something blocks the rain. So what else? We owe our kids much more.

We want our kids to be curious and collaborative, playful and inventive, passionate and committed, healthy and investigative, creative and responsible. We want them to be explorers, to be imaginative and friendly, to be communicators and citizens. We want them to be, and to feel, loved. We want them to be safe and yet become risk takers. And we want everything we do to help move kids that direction.

If you know what you want kids to be, and you know what you want kids to do, you can start building a design with your community. You may find that you know that you want to stop dividing kids up by age or born-on-date. You may wonder why you have single teacher classrooms, you may wonder why you have classrooms.

Over the past 7 or 8 years we have rethought spaces over and over, because we have kept wondering what our kids should be doing. The result has been amazing K-5 learning spaces where kids interact the way kids do. And fitness centers that acknowledge that “gym classes" just don’t promote lifespan fitness for all kids. And learning studios and workshops that are open and mix a large number of kids with multiple teachers. And now, a high school without classrooms at all.

Think about this — most of the structures of school, from age-based grades, to rectangular classrooms and double-loaded corridors, from the bell schedule to the idea of the teacher desk, were 19th century inventions based in ideas we’d find horrific today. If we keep repeating these structures as we build we will never get to where we need to be.

So let’s start with different questions, and build different places for learning.

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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