Schools Our Kids Would Build
Listening to Child-Architects
It is remarkable, in view of the fact that architectural education is very rarely provided within compulsory schooling, that there was such a wealth of material contributed to the collections in 1967 and 2001 about the shape and design of schools. Some have argued that children are "natural builders" or "have a natural talent as planners and designers" and that the school curriculum might be better organized to recognize this.
U.S. design educator Claire Gallagher has noted: "The typical means of instruction in our educational culture is either linguistic or mathematical. Rarely is any attention paid to visual or spatial thinking or problem-solving." Her work with "at-risk" elementary school children in designing and planning their own neighborhoods has illuminated how children have a distinctive knowledge and understanding of spatial environments that policy makers rarely tap.
The "School I'd Like" competition spontaneously produced dozens of models, hundreds of plans, and thousands of implied designs of ideal sites for learning. In addition there was produced a remarkable collection of drawings and paintings through which children have expressed their ideas on curriculum, use of time, role of teachers, and form of school.
These design ideas address more than the shape of building and the ordering of spaces; they tell of a vision of education that reaches beyond the strict mechanics of building science. The children seem to want schools not to resemble schools at all, but to resemble the adult world where individual privacy, comfort, and relaxation were permitted.
One of the 1967 competition winners was a detailed plan produced by a 17-year-old who wanted to become an architect. Like many of the plans and models contributed in 2001, this plan featured domes and pyramidal structures, circular spaces, and a lot of glass. The frequency of such circular schemes suggests a reaction against "squareness."
Within a circular school, with circular classrooms and spiral staircases, what becomes challenged is the institutional: the regulation and ordering of bodies in precise spaces, the processing of children as in a factory, the rehabilitation of individuals as in a prison. An alternative regularity found in nature is envisaged in schools as colonies of life and development. The outer membrane, as in a cell, is penetrable, filled with light, transparent, and attracting public view.
In The Culture of Education, Jerome Bruner has proposed that the curriculum should be conceived of as a spiral to suggest how learning is achieved through a series of ever deeper encounters "in the processes of meaning making and our constructions of reality."
The object of instruction, he continues, should not be coverage but rather depth, and the teacher is a collaborative learner and guide to understanding which begins with an intuitive impulse, "circling back to represent the domain more powerfully or formally as needed." When describing the spaces for learning as "caves" and the corridors as "spirals," the children here could be seen to be expressing their instinctive cultural understanding of how learning occurs.
We could argue that the preference for dome-like features in the recently collected archive can be explained simply through acknowledgement of the fact that domes are features of leisure environments that children and young people frequent. These features are representative of enjoyment, freedom, play, and excitement.
Perhaps it could be argued, however, that we have here in this collection of material, responding to the same question over time, evidence of constancy in childhood. Traditionally, the school room is square, has corners, and contains rows of bodies in disciplined rank. The comments of children about the significance of this in contrast to their preferred spherical arrangements betray an understanding that a shift occurs in the organization of authority and control in moving from the rectangular to the circular.
Release from Bondage
A recurring theme of likening school to a prison is found in competition entries, both past and present, suggesting that, from the point of view of those compelled to attend, little has altered in the basic character of school in spite of the vast extent of policy intervention over the intervening period.
Comfort, privacy, space for social activity and rest, and colorful, softly textured inviting interiors are called for by countless numbers of participants in the 2001 archive.
Many children are still compelled to attend school buildings designed and built half-a-century ago. Distressed about the poor state of the fabric of their schools, most want more space and recognize the limitations of school design in relation to inclusive school policies.
Young people in special schools who have difficulty just getting around the inadequately designed school spaces take the opportunity to recommend change. Some argue convincingly that if the overall appearance of the school were improved then children would be more likely to want to attend.
What emerges from the material is evidence that children have the capacity to examine critically the normal and everyday spaces in which they learn and can articulate their future in previously unimagined ways. They want to feel proud of the school to which they belong but many feel embarrassed by their surroundings.
The extracts show how clearly children regard the built environment as "the third teacher." To listen to these voices, past and present, is instructive to all educators, architects, designers, and policy makers who have responsibility for conceiving and constructing the spaces for learning which children inhabit.
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Catherine Burke is lecturer at the School of Education, University of Leeds. Ian Grosvenor is senior lecturer at the School of Education, University of Birmingham.
This article is excerpted from The School I'd Like, copyright © 2003, available from RoutledgeFalmer and at Amazon.com.