The school’s mental and physical rebuilding.

The Danish government has recently launched its ambitious, dialogue-based reform effort “Ny Nordisk Skole” (New Nordic School, ed.) that aims to enhance the professional standards among practitioners in the field of children and education across day care, primary and secondary schools, and youth education institutions. It is important in this discussion how the school’s new space can be organised so that they match the desired future practice in the best way.

Time is running and the lack of maintenance is well-known. The demography represents another major challenge. An increasing number of Danes living in the larger cities choose to stay and settle down when they get children. As a consequence, many schools in these cities have been challenged on capacity over the last years. Away from the urban cities, the situation is often the opposite: the young people move away to study and work, and they do not return and are not replaced by new-settlers. This means that there are fewer children in the countryside and therefore also many schools that are left half-empty.

Time runs fast also because the school as we know them are caught between the physical boundaries and their pedagogical and organisational intentions. Their physical appearance will often look more or less the same – nearly half of our schools are more than 50 years – but as organisations, they are drastically changing these years: from fixed classes to flexibly sized groups, from smaller teams to year-based teaching. The schedule of the school day is typically heading for longer classes and a farewell to the classic breaks and the bell which is to be replaced by more flexible, need based breaks from the teachers. IT will become an always accessible work tool for more and more teachers and students and interactive tablet computers and laptops will phase out the old, fixed IT rooms. Teachers increasingly plan and perform their work in teams, and this effort is complied with various models for group space and adult workplaces as a supplement to the classic teachers’ lounge. The long corridors are replaced by rebuilding and building extensions of more compact structures providing other spatial combinations.

In recent years’ school building projects, the main objective has been to achieve better spacious and functional flexibility, and to create spaces and spatial interaction that does not only match present needs, but  is also adjustable so it will match the unknown needs of the future.

The new solutions in schools must be found in a time where cost-reductions are high on the agenda and is expected to be so for the upcoming years. The focus is therefore on how we can use the space, buildings, and possible interactions we already possess in a smarter way. In relation to our work on the development of “Modelprogram for Folkeskoler,” (model programme for primary schools, ed.) initiated by Erhvervs- og Byggestyrelsen and Realdania (hotlink Modelprogrammet) as well as a wide range of consultant projects carried out in educational institutions, we see that many municipalities are not only facing the challenges of demographic fluctuations that puts forth high demands on the flexibility and elasticity of the building mass, but also a number of similar challenges:

  • Small schools are closed down and large schools have to make room for more students.
  • A shared desire to move the education out of the old, functionally fixed classrooms and instead expand the educational environment by creating better possibilities for differentiated teaching methods and different ways of learning.
  • A shared desire to increase the opportunities and motivation for team based co-operations and knowledge sharing between teachers and to make the school an all-day workplace for the employees.
  • Many schools are known for having a poor capacity performance and for closing at early hours. How is it possible to create a better use of the capacity only by opening up for other users?

Before a municipality starts up ambitious rebuilding projects, building new buildings, closing down schools or planning mergers, it can be a good idea to have a close look at the schools’ existing square meters and the functions that they hold. At most schools there will be a surprisingly big amount of vacant square meters to work with when demographical changes must be met, just as there are typically lots of possibilities to establish new functions in old rooms through a different or more flexible use of existing square meters.

Through comprehensive analyses of capacity performance of various common spaces at schools such as classrooms, group rooms, corridors, common rooms, and after school areas etc., it is notable that throughout a school day, several square meters are not used at all. Whereas it is utopian to imagine a 100 per cent usage of the different rooms, because a school must have more rooms to work with, there is a real opportunity to optimise the use of the existing square meters in rooms where the current used capacity is as low as 20-30 per cent.

Without a mental rebuilding, things will stay the same

Another very significant challenge/acknowledgement for the municipal building owners and the school management engaged in the project is that the prior problems will follow them into the new buildings if the project is not followed up by a focussed mental rebuilding of the school. Through the development of “Modelprogram for Folkeskolen” and other consultant projects, we have had plenty of opportunities to study the use of and behaviour in school space, old as new. We can conclude that the newly constructed school is rarely used as intended because the project has not been supported by a change in the way teachers and students work in and with the new space.

The classroom is still main priority: For instance during observations on newly built schools, built with the clear intention that space and spatial interaction should support and facilitate more flexible forms of teaching, we have seen how the class has remained the natural unit, that the classroom is still the physical focus, and how the spacious possibilities for connecting people by unfolding flexible doors and the like are typically closed. We have seen teachers who, instead of standing in front of the blackboard, take position by the folding door and use it as a form of bulletin board. Because the physical rebuilding is not followed up by a “mental rebuilding” where teachers in the new or rebuilt areas can unlearn old habits and work forms, a proper coherence between new practice and new space solutions will not be achieved. Instead, there will be a clash between new space solutions and old practice.

Poor performing common rooms: We have seen that many of the large common rooms, that are often placed close to classrooms in new or rebuilt schools and which are hoped to be the key area of the new and space-flexible school, in reality often end up as a poor performing space, challenged by conflicting use. Even though the common room is typically designed with workstations where the students can study individually or in groups, the space is often used by students from other classes who, at the same time, are on a “flexible break” from one of their classes. Their games disturb those who are working, and the schools therefore seem to have ended up with indoor school yards rather than a common room for flexible teaching methods. The vital flexibility that the school board speaks of is not necessarily existent in the everyday use, and the consequence might be that the common room is discarded in learning situations.

Expensive and poor performing classrooms: A third observation is that newly designed classrooms for for instance physics and chemistry, music, cooking are popular among the teachers and students who use them, but the used capacity of these rooms – that are also the most expensive – is surprisingly poor. Therefore it is a great idea to look at the possibilities for establishing new and updated classrooms for these courses that can be shared with one or more schools from the municipality and thereby be a better investment for all involved.

Adult workplaces – a tough nut to crack: A fourth observation is that most schools these days are attempting to create attractive adult workplaces, wishing to keep the teachers at the school through a full workday. The advantages are obvious: improved basis for collaboration and knowledge sharing between teachers, better possibilities for cooperation and dialog between teachers and students, ultimately a better opportunity to create a strong and corporate culture at the school. However, teachers have also stressed that many schools are lacking attractive rooms as: group rooms for planning team based education, besides the teachers’ lounge. Access to computers, printers and photocopy machines. Access to safe storage of preparation material, “reference library”, and such. A simple challenge is how to work out the schedule. It can be quite tricky to ensure that “blackboard hours” for the teachers who work within flexible and ever-changing teaching teams begin and end at the same time. The less focus there is on getting the organisational scheme to work smoothly, the greater the risk of having teachers waiting on their colleagues, if the intention of collaboration on preparation of courses is to be met.

In other words, the rebuilding of the school is as much a job for the mental adaptability. Therefore, if an ambitious new, extended or rebuilt school is to become a success, it is crucial that the focus on interaction between space and function is maintained and strengthened.

User involvement without design principles

In the process that leads a political decision to complete a new school building or larger rebuilding project, it is now more often than not that different forms of user involvement processes are taken into account and needs analyses among the main users of the school are carried out, often involving representatives from the parents as well as local sports clubs, cultural organisations and so on.

The challenge is that these quite resource demanding processes often focus on the teachers’, students’ and other users’ wishes and ideas of what opportunities the new space of the school should bring, while the work on creating more specific design principles for how the new space and spatial interaction of the school will support existing and new functions is left in the dark, meaning the work to try and translate the interaction between function and spaciousness into visual design principles or function descriptions typically suffers.

Therefore, the outcome of the user involvement is often a short synthesis of the wishes from the involved, written into the project program in a non-architectural language or an enclosure with a list of the users’ wishes and expectations that has not been put in prioritised order. The consequence is that the architects who make a proposal on the project do not have a chance to know what target they are aiming for. Or worse yet, they do not perceive the described user needs as binding. The architects typically do not mind this. It gives them free hands to be innovative. It is more problematic for the municipal building owners who have invested their employees’ time and commitment to the project if they no longer recognise the wishes from the user involvement processes and therefore have to choose the architectural project based on other premises. It can be quite frustrating for the employees and other key figures who have participated and committed themselves to the process when they find it hard to figure out where their wishes and demands ended up in the finished school.

The goal with the early consulting that takes place in-between idea and the project program is therefore as much about preparing the building owner for the needs analysis and user involvement process so he will know what is needed to guarantee the wanted output – design principles and function descriptions for the school that is to be build, rebuild or merged.

Af Morten Fisker.