Turning the key ninety degrees clockwise initiates a daily routine that runs like clockwork: elevator down 4 floors; walk one block west and 3 blocks south; descend escalator; stand perpendicular to train doors; board; five stops; transfer; dodge and divert to escalator; board; 7 stops; 120 seconds ascending back to ground level (you’re close when you feel gusts of un-circulated air); walk 1 block east, two blocks south; scan ID to enter building; elevator up; locate work station; open laptop; power on.
A commute evolves into to a sterile routine. This commute, now an innate habit, is the connecting force between the two dominant spaces in my life: work and home.
A confluence of changes has me thinking about where I am and the spaces I move through:
1. Moving from Nashville to DC
2. Teaching the last two years
3. My indoctrination into the world of skyscrapers and cubicles
I’ve wondered how space affects our mental livelihood; from office cubicles to 40-year-old schools, how should we construct physical spaces to nourish our creativity, drive productivity, motivate our learning, and keep people comfortable enough to focus, but focused enough to make progress?
While these questions have festered in transit between the two spaces where most of my life plays out, they’ve grown in the unpacking of boxes, subsequent decorating, and the continued development of teaching materials as I’ve stepped out of the classroom.
The two most pressing questions I want to dig into are:
How do we create learning spaces for students that meet the needs of the 21st century?
When will a classroom with rows of desks be an obsolete way to assimilate and apply knowledge, or are we already past that point?
Exploring the answer to these questions will draw from the history of the office, mapping the psychological needs that a home satiates, and using the intersection of schools, homes, and offices to identify key design elements of the 21st century school.
The space we live in, our first home; work in, our second home; and navigate through in the interim via public transportation, cars, and at the behest of our own bodies paints the landscape of our lives. Beauty is more often sought in nature and art than the structures where we spend most of our lives. When did you last think of your office as a place of natural beauty, where the mind meshes with the environment to produce knowledge, products, solutions? And what could beauty mean in home and office? Is it in dimly lit lamps, sturdy furniture, or the final flourishes of candles and pictures? Is it a space for entertaining, cooking, relaxing, reading, sleeping? Is a beautiful office defined by flexible work spaces, a space you call your own, a space for collaboration, light from outside, or a chair offering optimal back support?
Unlike offices, classroom spaces are an under-explored phenomenon. After spending two years teaching, I found that the architecture of schools arcane: computer labs are dysfunctional, arcane heating and cooling systems mean summer and winter temperatures co-exist in a single hall; pests plague classrooms, desks are mismatched and lined in rows, and classrooms are separated by cinderblock walls. I’ll add with equal force that this is no fault of the teachers and school administrators. Teachers have ostensibly lost control of everything but the four walls inside their classrooms: standards are handed down from the state, tests and benchmarks from mega-corporations; as a result, school buildings are the last place school funding reaches.
Lessons Learned: Work & Home
This is an exercise in reimagining what the classroom space can look like. Drawing from the ethos of Common Core, this is an interdisciplinary approach relying on the history of the office and what makes home a place to rejuvenate fulfilling the eternal desire to live driven by purpose.
Office Space: Progenitor of the 21st Century Classroom
The clerk of yesteryear is only a distant cousin of the corporate professional we know today. Mid-19th century clerks worked in the predecessor of the cubicle, diminutive spaces with lean staffs but, “… the notion of the office as the quintessential location of alienated work, or simple drudgery,” (Saval 12) remains true.
The office was born in the early 1800s as a result of industrialization: “…The Jeffersonian democracy of farmers was heading toward the same fate as the buffalo.” (Saval, 16) With industrialization came transportation, increased mobility, and the generation of offices defining urban areas.
The original clerking class of small, decentralized offices were located in a smattering of small towns across 1860 America and patronage came from the same small town. The advent of mass transportation caused centralization in urban areas thereby increasing competition with clerks in small towns. Technological advances in manufacturing, coupled with railroads, created the geographical links for factories to flourish.
Taylorism in the Industrial Era
Monetizing efficiency in factories became sport; business owners flocked to Frederick Taylor to optimize profits. The factory’s 21st century corollary, as outlined in the publication Jacobin, is the no-excuse charter school movement and subsequent obsession with efficiency in the educational space.
Frederick Taylor’s theories to optimize efficiency in factories, termed Taylorism, is the process of segmenting work and monitoring employee efficacy by measuring outputs by assessing how long particular tasks should take, down to the second. Taylor’s obsession with efficiency solidified while he worked as an apprentice machinist struck by the lethargic pace of his co-workers. Taylor argued: “There is not a single worker, ‘who does not devote a considerable part of his time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good place,’” which is a central tenet of Scientific Management, Taylor’s management theory. (Saval, 47)
As a result of this thinking, Taylor segmented jobs so each individual was responsible for one piece of a larger task. Thus the era of deskilled labor began, weakening the bargaining power of workers who were no longer experts in a craft but segmented laborers collectively producing goods at an unprecedented pace. Taylor was even known to sport a stopwatch when visiting factories to enforce efficient and lean labor. An autoworker for Buick, Will Poyfair’s 3-word reflection on a factory “visit” mirror Taylor’s austere philosophy of lean production, “Stop watched today.” (Saval, 52)
“In the past the man has been first, in the future, the system will be first. […] It is only through the enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with the management alone.” (Saval, 50)
Taylor’s theory was popularized amongst management theorists and parlayed in corporate organizational design: “…Organizational charts to designate, down to the minutest details, the labor process that workers once carried out within their own heads.” (Saval, 55) This model of management requires constant supervision and reprimand. With a hyper-awareness of an employee’s every action, supervisors relied on time and motion study to evaluate employees. The employee psyche was hyper-focused on productivity as a result of fear: supervisors went so far as to issue demerits for wrong motions.
A handful of the schools deemed revolutionary today operate in the likeness of Taylor’s Scientific Management where constant supervision and hyper-efficient spaces capitalize on efficiency at all costs in the service of academic growth.
While the office post-Scientific Management wasn’t replete with stop watches, a bevy of corporate giants still aimed to standardize processes, people, and workplaces. The cubicle was the moniker of 20th century office parks and remains as such today.
While more recent experimentation with flexible offices, corporate campuses, and decentralized organizational structures has yielded case study successes, the cubicle remains the tried and true symbol of the office space. In a similar vein, schools rely on the WWII-era modern design, with the exception of charter schools that are a spatial iteration of Industrial-era Scientific Management.
Home: Form Ever Follows Function
William Morris was one of few remaining craftsman during Taylor’s decades of industrialization and standardization. His asynchronous work as a textile designer, poet, and translator imbued his home with the manifestations of his talents: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
A home is one’s inner sanctum; a space constructed to imbibe intellectual curiosity, restore calm, absorb natural light, and nourish community.
Homes, originating from from banal blueprints and generic features, are transformed by the ever-evolving occupant.
My home morphed from the epicenter of my family to a construction of my own when I moved to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt. Scotch tape tenuously hung frameless photos and tactless Christmas lights provided mood lighting. The ethos of my space hasn’t changed, but its form has evolved.
Vinyl and Vine was a night of music projected by my record player’s victrola. It often devolved into live music from the same community of friends who gave me this record player on my 21st birthday. Vinyl and Vine reinforced that home is the conduit to finding the juxtaposing forces of growth and peace.
Similarly, Louis Sullivan, the father of the modern skyscraper, enduringly prescribed to the belief that “form ever follows function.” While his buildings’ facades were ornate and interiors awe-inducing, he ardently believed form, or the beauty of a building, was secondary to the function. Sullivan’s design began by articulating the functionality needed in a structure. In teaching, we call this backwards planning: defining the end goal and working backwards from there to ensure activities are aligned to the goal. The function of a home is to provide a space that satiates basic needs and the form, or environment, to foster growth.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
& Connections to the Learning Space
Sullivan’s argument that form follows function is central to the definition of a home’s core functionalities: physiological (eating), love and belonging (living space), safety (space to rest), and self-actualization + esteem (learning/creating).
These four functionalities of a home work together to propel a person towards the highest level on Maslow’s Hierarchy: self-actualization. The discussion of each functionality is followed by questions exploring how Maslow’s Hierarchy and a home space relates to school design.
The Kitchen: Physiology
Maslow places physiological needs as the foundational level on the hierarchy; no other needs can be met without water, food, clothing, and shelter. The open design of my kitchen is symbolic of my desire to create a home where people are welcome and feel at home.
Cooking for others, fulfilling physiological needs, is the simplest expression of care; conversely, the flourishes of a candlelit table and meticulous table setting reach up to love/belonging on the hierarchy of needs. The combination of care for basic nourishment and attention to ambiance make guests feel comfortable and cared for. Meeting physiological needs and the need to belong in a classroom requires a keen focus on organizing the physical space to provide a safe and welcoming class community.
Key Physiological Considerations in a Classroom Setting:
Are basic needs sufficiently met in a school setting?
How do physiological needs affect a student’s ability to learn?
To what extent should students be aware of how physiological needs affect their ability to learn?
The Bedroom: Safety
Giving the body sustaining strength (food) is met with the equally powerful physiological need for rest. The ability to rest is most notably contingent upon a feeling of safety, which is dependent on two factors: people who co-inhabit the space and the community surrounding the home. Safety is an amorphous construct; as a result, sense of safety can change instantaneously in a moment of community violence or the integration of a new person in the home.
Key Considerations in a Learning Setting:
What constructs in a classroom ensure a student feels safe?
What type of ambiance enables a learner to feel safe and encouraged to learn when home is unstable?
How do teachers help students reach a relaxed, focused mental state in the face of chaos or anxiety at home that precludes rest?
How does a space ensure that students are comfortable and safe, but provide the structure to ensure high student engagement?
The Living Room: Love and Belonging
The need to belong rests above safety and physiology on Maslow’s Hierarchy. This is an interpersonal need that can be fulfilled through friendship, family, or an intimate relationship. The desire to belong, or fit in, can superceed safety or physiological needs in children, which means classrooms must provide the spaces to build interpersonal relationships and encourage social inclusion.
My living space, orients people inward with seating arranged in a circle. In this way, belonging is structurally embedded in the space, which should also be true of a classroom.
Key Considerations in a Learning Setting:
How does collaboration and sharing of information happen in a learning space? How can the structure be devised in such a way that includes everyone? What objects, scaffolds, or elements beyond seating support and enhance learning?
The Office: Self-Actualization
Maslow wrote, “What a man can be, he must be.” Experience delineates personal interests; the pursuit of mastering, learning, or trying something new repeatedly is the formation of a hobby. Some parlay hobbies into careers and achieve self-actualization or realize there is the potential for self-actualization in the future.
Realizing one’s potential is the overwrought poetic theme of life as a journey. Traces of these hobbies, interests, or careers fill in a home’s open spaces with time. Achieving self-actualization may span decades, so traces of hobbies and emerging interests infuse the home. The interaction of space and hobbies take the form of libraries, offices, workspaces, or a hybrid, which is another key consideration of necessary spaces to motivate and inspire students toward understanding what self-actualization means.
Every time I leave home, I look forward to again returning to my office. Lit by candles and the gentle glow of a lamp, surrounded by natural light and framed mantras and memories, serenaded by the familiar scratch on the needle on a record, this is where I seek self-actualization.
Key Considerations in a Learning Setting:
Where does inspiration fit in jam-packed curriculum and relentless focus on academics?
How does the classroom space affect creativity, focus, and motivation?
How can teachers embed the pursuit of personal interests in curriculum?
Architect Louis Sullivan coined the design principle, “form ever follows function.” The design of a home is built around functionality; form is a direct result of function. The different components of a home’s functionality connect to all levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. How can a classroom, like a home, serve as a functional space that reaches every level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, with the aim of helping students articulate passions and interests in the spirit of self-actualization. Moreover, how can a classroom space represent an extension of teacher and students with the goal of meeting increasingly rigorous standards and imbuing curiosity and fervor for learning?
The Classroom Space Status Quo:
Synthesizing the history of the office as a place of productivity, the resurgence of Scientific Management in learning, and the functionalities of a home in relation to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs leads us to the history of the school space.
Priorities in Education Reform
Education Reform is the attempt to reshape the system to both meet the needs of the 21st century and fix the inequities our nation’s students still face more than 100 years after Reconstruction. Yet, the history of education in the United States is rife with the same challenges, and solutions, that we utilize today differentiated by a new vernacular.
Education reform is owned by a handful of powerful reformers driven by two contradicting aims: altruism and power. Reformers with the most influence capitalize on gaining public interest and outrage over one piece of the education puzzle. Generational poverty, teacher retention, charter schools, college and career readiness, and ineffective teachers dominate education coverage in the media today.
A focal point of the 2015 reform agenda are Common Core Standards, the nation’s first set of common standards, driving at college and career readiness through anchor standards for K-12. The debate around Common Core is polarizing and consumes the public’s attention.
Charter schools are another dominant force in reform agendas today. Charter schools nationally have faced challenges in finding space to house their schools; this debate catapulted charter schools into education news in 2015. Yet, a broader discussion of the inadequacy of school and classroom spaces is all but ignored in the same media outlets and political agendas. Reforming the school space rivals standards reform in urgency. A 21st century classroom features the technological tools and collaborative spaces students need to master Common Core standards. The history of the office and psychological implications of a home set the stage for the history of school spaces and why they must change.
A Professor of Architecture at Columbia in 1910 noted, “The design of public school buildings have been more completely standardized than for any type of structure, except the American public library.” (Baker, 3) The standardization of school design in the 20th century gave rise to national instructional standards in the 21st.
Standardization should only occur when an exceptional product is identified that merits ubiquitous replication. An analysis of the history of school design is a pre-requisite to critiquing the school buildings used today.
Early History of School Design
A standard, free education was was a result of the Common School Movement in the 1830s. One room school houses serving geographically disconnected communities were the first iteration of public education in the United States where education was no longer reserved exclusively for the elite.
As the population grew and cities became more connected, school design solidified: school buildings were to serve as “lasting icons of our culture.” (Baker, 3) Moreover, design guidelines dictated that school should be simple, plain, and built to last with high-quality materials. (Baker, 3) Horace Mann, forefather of public education, developed a seating arrangement within the classroom that called for rows of desks and windows on either side of the room. (The dearth of natural light is most classrooms today is worth note; most classrooms have a sliver of window in a door outside.)
School Design from 1930-1980
The Great Depression did little to slow school construction. While progressive educators like John Dewey touted experiential education, school design was mired in the past. Revolutionary progressive reformers focused on the interplay between school buildings and learning. For example, Dewey’s Laboratory School ascribed to experiential education; practical experiences and hand-on activities defined the educational philosophy. Dewey’s 1938 treatise on the possibility and promise of education, Experience and Education, added fuel to the fire with public concerns emerging about the “psychological effects of school buildings.” (Baker, 9) Meanwhile, education throughout the 1930s focused on standardization of school facilities, management, and construction.
Austerity Measure: Post WWII to Cold War
In the wake of World War II, Europe scrambled to rebuild the ruins of their cities while the United States built schools at a furious pace to account for the influx of school-aged Baby Boomers. From 1945-1964, an unprecedented $20 billion was spent on school construction. (Baker, 7) While architects had a renewed focus on reinventing the school building, the influx of students and associated building cost pushed innovation aside and instead focused on efficient, cost-effective spaces.
This era of efficiency was marked by buildings, “no longer classical or colonial, Georgian or Gothic in architectural style but truly modern in that there were one-story, flat-roofed structures enclosed in either glass and metal window wall systems or brick and concrete wall systems.” (Baker, 11) The classical and colonial schools built pre-WWII were manifestations of the community they served; classrooms and common spaces bore functionality, but the form allowed infusion of the era’s enduring values and community ethos. The modern school built for Baby Boomers stripped away the character and aesthetic luxuries of schools that were commonplace before hastened standardization.
The modern school relied on new building technology; it was less-expensive and easier to construct than the schools of generations past. (Baker, 11) Unfortunately, neither the design nor the buildings have been rebuilt; rather they are renovated and expanded with additions. Schools today are wrought with overcrowding in high-performing districts and severe under-enrollment in neighborhood schools students opt to attend open-enrollment charter schools.
Schools of Present Past
Understanding the history of school building brings two key points to bear: 1) School buildings have not had a wholesale redesign in the last century 2) School spaces are dictated by population and inadequate funding; the call to build new and innovative schools is background noise in education reform as teachers are portrayed as apathetic and test data drives conversations about the failure of our schools.
In this atmosphere, a conversation about school design and modernization has no space to gain traction until a salient, unbreakable connection is made between 21st century learning spaces critical role in supporting rigorous, relevant instruction.
Twenty years ago, in 1995, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that $112 billion was needed only to ensure schools were in “good overall condition.” (Banks, 21) A high school in 2013 cost $20 million dollars to build. With the financial burden incomprehensible and the reform space dominated by imminent concerns, little attention is paid to school buildings.
Schools are a second home and ‘office’ for 50 million students in the United States who have no voice in the form or function of the school space. Teachers cover chipped walls in student art and bring lamps as alternatives to fluorescent classroom lighting; administrators fight off asbestos in the summer months; support staffs adorn hallways with student work and encouraging messages to mitigate dim lights and overcrowded hallways.
Where do we go from here?
First, a reimagined school design must be brought to life by the stakeholders who spend everyday in schools: teachers, administrators, and most importantly, students. The school building will forever symbolize the freedom and entrepreneurial spirit that founded this country; in the 21st century, it must stand as a pillar of innovation, collaboration, and flexibility.
School Space 2.0: What will in take to change the learning landscape?
Taylor’s scientific management gave rise to the modern office. Cubicle farms in sprawling skyscrapers form iconic skylines in every major city. The modern office aims to promote lean production via efficient labor, but the space stymies creative pursuits and the uniformity imbues an impersonal ethos that can easily halt productivity.
The comforts of home enable the pursuit of self-actualization on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; in a classroom, these comforts exist only when a teacher designs a space that allows students to explore passions in a safe, comfortable space. Homes are functional by definition; they serve the physiological need to feed our bodies and rest our minds. Yet, a home’s form is an extension of oneself. The spaces that curate learning, provide space to entertain others, and the decorative flourishes are an avenue to pursue self-actualization, which explains why people love to spend time at home. Unlike an office, home may not provide the structure to relentlessly motivate learning over leisure or socialization. The fluidity of this space requires intense self-discipline to achieve optimal productivity.
Office space is built to preclude the occasional doze off. It’s fluorescent bulbs and barren, impersonal space implies that anyone else could swoop in to successfully accomplish the job. Offices exist because work is first informed by the market need, not the people potential. This form of the office is impersonal and the worker feels a degree of separation from the space. Home comforts, restores, and nourishes; a home is not intended to elicit production, it is to connect with oneself, friends, and family.
The 21st century school shouldn’t be a utilitarian structure; instead, it will need to pull elements from the evolved office and home to create a learning environment suitable for the 21st century.
School Space 2.0: Structures to Support Learning Goals
The 21st century school needs to reinvent traditional instructional design that places the teacher as the expert and authoritarian in a classroom. Schools need to imbue the productivity an office aims for without the impersonal focus on efficiency and banal, individual workstations. Schools need to impart autonomous motivation, encourage curiosity, and provide a safe space that enables a sense of belonging found in a home without deviating too far from the academic purpose of education. The following guiding principles aim to use the intersections of the modern school building, home, and office to construct a truly 21st century school.
Collaborate: Design needs to necessitate collaboration. All classrooms should have flexible seating where students work in ever-changing groups. Laboratories shouldn’t be reserved for science alone; each content area should include a laboratory space to experientially explore concepts.
Let there be Light: Schools cannot be concrete fortresses without portals into the outside world. Harsh fluorescent lights that are a staple of American classrooms support student alertness, but they create a sterile space where the structures, not just the teachers, keep students alert. Natural light affects health, but it also lightens a student’s spirit. First popularized in the 1930’s school designers, classrooms should have windows on at least two walls. Fluorescent lights should be replaced by soft lighting that can be adjusted based on activity. Common spaces including cafeterias, libraries, and hallways are not excluded from the conversation. Spaces that provide a glimpse of the outside world allow students to connect with the surrounding community.
Integrated, not Inserted Technology: The challenge facing education technology companies and teachers alike is how to integrate technology that supplements learning instead of replacing direct instruction or deviating from learning objectives. This subtle distinction plagues technology integration today. Technological tools that are aligned to learning objectives effectively maximize efficiency, engage students, and enhance learning objectives. Technology cannot replace a teacher’s ability to spot disengagement, remediate misunderstandings, and build relationships with students. Yet, it is a powerful tool for differentiation and practice when implemented effectively.
Schools currently face a magnificent dearth of technological resources; as a result, the first fix is accessibility. A computer or mobile learning device needs to be available for every student. Technology coaches need to be at every school and work with teachers to provide instructional resources, co-plan technology integrated lessons, and support challenges like technological literacy. The “wow” factor in education technology cannot drive instruction; purchasing Smart Boards that students use as a toy is not an effective technology integration. Therefore, state and federal governments need to build bridges between schools and for-profit education technology companies. Until the market learns first-hand from teachers, technology won’t serve as the efficient, differentiated tool that is a conduit to increase student mastery.
Develop Collaborative Space for Teachers, Not Checkmarks: A school building is centered around student learning, but it ignores the professional learning teachers need to improve their practice. Equally under-appreciated is the knowledge, of both pedagogy and the content, to succeed as an instructional leader. The problem is that professional development is static; teachers sit, listen, and complete mandatory exercises typically as a whole staff in a large room. Teacher growth can’t exist in a vacuum when the once yearly observation rolls around. School design needs to recognize coaches as collaborators, not critiquers. Small, flexible teams with coaches and fellow teachers should be used in lieu of whole-school or district professional development. Japan’s professional development model mirrors this idea; classrooms in Japan emphasize less structure with more rigor. Japan uses “lesson study” to reflect on lessons with fellow teachers and instructional coaches to improve the teaching craft.
While instructional coaches are fairly common in schools, the school structure needs to create collaborative, safe spaces for teachers to get excited about learning how to be better. Teachers in the same grade and content area should have adjoining classrooms connected by a shared office space where they meet daily to plan, reflect, and adjust instruction accordingly.
From Here to Where?
There is no archetypal school structure; needs vary across regions and through generations. However, the school structure cannot remain stagnant. Our “modern” school buildings were designed and built in the post-WWII population booms. These outdated structures don’t reflect the aims of Common Core: college and career readiness. The 21st century is not built in walled off rooms with seating in rows and technology accessible only in a laboratory.
Amidst an education reform agenda brimming with questions of rigor and school choice, the multi-billion dollar school re-design and building process is pushed to the bottom of a long list of priorities. In taking a step back, it is clear that classroom spaces affect student mastery. When introducing a new skill, a teacher uses scaffolding to gradually release students until they have mastered the content. Similarly, classrooms need the structural scaffolds that allow students to learn, practice, and master complex skills. Test scores will not improve unless students and teachers are set up for success with structural scaffolds in classrooms and school that enable mastery of 21st century objectives.
In drawing from the history of the office and the psychological purpose of a house’s functional parts, a thought exercise in designing the school of the 21st century brings to bear the lessons learned from the evolution and purpose of the workplace plus the functional characteristics of a home.
From here, we continue the conversation about the importance and design of classroom spaces so students today are equipped to collaborate peacefully and solve the complex challenges our generation will leave behind.
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
By Nikil Saval
(Written by Mara Truslow, Published November 22, 2015)