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Building a better school

Elie Newman's Transformation Project at The Bishop Strachan School

by Glen Herbert


“It's wonderfully constructed,” says Sugata Mitra. “It's just that we don't need it anymore.” Mitra is a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, best known for his "Hole in the Wall" experiment, which he discussed in a wildly popular TED talk. He was addressing an idea that comes up from time to time, that education is broken and needs fixing. What critics respond to are the outcomes, and lowering math scores is usually high on the list.

Mitra’s point is that it isn’t broken, but rather that we’re using an old model, one that was developed to train students for roles in a specific time and place, yet expecting results in keeping with modernity. What we think of as a traditional form of instruction—desks in rows, chalk and talk—was designed to meet the requirements of what he describes as a “global computer made up of people” that grew out of the age of Empire. “In order to have that machine running,” he says, “you need lots and lots of people … [and] they must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head.” It would produce what Sean McDougall calls “obedient specialists: adults who could work in factories, assembling components, or as domestic servants, not people who needed to think for themselves.”

Then and now

That’s not our world of course, though the legacy remains with us, more or less. “In the old days,” says Elie Newman of his own experience in elementary and high school, “there were a bunch of fixed desks with a bunch of pipes coming out of them.” That was the science lab. There was a teacher up at the front, and half of the equipment in the desks you never used. There was a map of the world pinned to the wall, the alphabet written out on ruled lines. "That’s the way we all went to school.”

That we expect it to deliver the kinds of skills that learners need to have today is akin, to borrow a phrase from Elton John, to "trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine." We need certain results, namely people who can think for themselves, yet we aren't working with tools that were developed to deliver them. Which begs a few very good questions: If you were to build a school for the needs of today, what would it look like? What would it include? What would you borrow from the past? What would you innovate?

Those are the questions that animate much of Elie Newman's work as principal architect of BNKC in Toronto. The answer, perhaps more than anything else, is embodied in the Transformation Project at The Bishop Strachan School (BSS) completed in 2017. “We’ve worked for BSS over the years,” says Newman. “Two major projects and a couple minor ones. And both times they were looking for similar things.” Often the object was to allow a bit of space. “Their junior school was in very cramped quarters. They were constrained within enclosed walls.” But other things crept in, too, such as developing more flexible uses of spaces, ones that would provide opportunities for more hands-on groups, more differentiated learning, and IT infrastructure. Essentially, “all those kinds of things that go into modern education as opposed to education back in 1926” when the main building on the BSS campus was completed. The Transformation Project would bring that building into a new age. It was the largest project yet, certainly the boldest, and conducted to tackle the big questions head on. Rather than small fixes, it would overhaul the entire concept of what a teaching environment can be.

The result, as you might expect, is one that learners from even half a century ago would have trouble recognizing as a school. All the key spaces are filled with natural light, with glass walls creating a porous interface between them. Where the divisions between programs were once stark—the music room was once on one floor, and the art and science labs on others—all are now intentionally cheek by jowl to allow daily interaction. “You’re not confined to a little box,” says one student, “but can see how your work connects with other things.” A geometry class, for example, can discover the mathematical principle at the heart of snowflake, and then code a 3D printer to build one. There are also ample opportunities for children to make their thinking visible. Catherine Hant, principal of the Junior School at BSS says, “we feel strongly that the learning of children, no matter what the age, [be] transparent to the other kids in the building." There's method there, from simply having a voice, to mutual inspiration. Says Angela Terpstra, head of school at BSS, “hopefully, when younger students walk by they’ll think, ‘that is so cool, how do they do that?’ or ‘I can’t wait till I do that’, asking questions that may spark new interests." By and large, that's exactly what they do. 

“ … a crucible of creativity …”

These are attractive projects—Newman has done similar work at Royal St. Georges and St. Andrews College, the Northmount School. They look good, with lots of space and natural light. And, yes, it’s nice to have nice spaces to work and learn within. But it’s about more than that. It’s about creating new ways to think about ourselves, and to explore our world. More prosaically, it’s about graduating people who have the skills they’ll need to work efficiently in the world as it is today: creativity, collaboration, communication, and innovation.

The design of a school, believes Newman, should encourage what some might think of as messy thinking. “It’s not that you always have to be in group sessions or small sessions. There are different ways of doing it. What you want is that the finishes shouldn’t feel precious. Not every room should look the same. With the flexibility to create different types of groupings. Or have groups of kids leave, and go off and work on a problem where the teachers can see them in a little niche, or collaboration spaces." Key is a sense of belonging. "You make it clear to the people who are using it, look, this is for you to own, this is for you to experiment with.” These aren't spaces where students worry that someone will yell at them for, say, writing on the walls or windows. In fact, more often than not, the materials Newman chooses are literally amenable to even that. These aren’t spaces to be venerated, but to be used.

“We look at it as the bones for a learning style,” says Newman. In many ways its antecedent lies in what Jonas Salk created at MIT, now known as the Salk Institute. Salk called it a “crucible of creativity,” an expression of his belief that “most of the exciting work in science occurs at the boundaries between disciplines.” Salk wanted to create an environment in which scientists could “explore the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity.”

Salk thought big thoughts, to be sure, though he was right, not just for the PhD candidates thinking of changing the future of humanity, but for everyone: we think and learn best at the boundary between disciplines, where thinking is more fluid, and less doctrinaire. Salk knew, too, that we learn as much from those next to us as from those standing at the front of the room.  

A capacity for wonder

“When I go in today what really gives me pleasure is to see those rooms being used, even in ways that I didn’t imagine." The fact that Newman can't imagine the extent of the uses of the rooms is, of course, precisely the point. They aren't programmed, but instead about possibility. They are spaces designed, as with the Salk lab at MIT, to allow outcomes to exceed expectations, and to do so in unexpected, unanticipated ways. 

While the Transformation Project is precisely that—a large-scale transformation—Newman notes that it doesn’t take a complete overhaul to adapt spaces to new ways of learning and interacting. “There are lots of schools that have those old fashioned rooms that have been reconfigured in minor ways, and its done beautifully.” Still, he sees the BSS project as a proof of the concept, and perhaps also as the culmination of much of the work that he’s been doing in the education space: to bring disciplines together, allowing them to intersect naturally by virtue of proximity; to empower the students at the centre of the teaching environment, helping them to develop the skills that they’ll need today, as well as when they enter post-secondary and professional life; to provide spaces that aren't precious, and as such to allow for the augmentation of innate curiosities, to fuel interests and aspirations. As authors Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough have written, “We need to think about creating classroom environments that give children the opportunity for wonder, mystery and discovery; an environment that speaks to young children’s inherent curiosity and innate yearning for exploration is a classroom where children are passionate about learning and love school.” To walk through BSS on a busy day, it's clear that Newman has done exactly that. 

 

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