How High Schools Are Demolishing the Classroom
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because learning can happen everywhere, not just in a classroom.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series “High School, Disrupted” to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.
Cool mist rises off the Mississippi and drifts across the deck of the classroom. Below, the murky waters of the Delta gush past in a torrent. In fact, little separates the gaggle of gossiping teenagers from the venomous snakes and oil-stained river beneath their feet. Not exactly Hogwarts Express, right?
New Harmony High in Louisiana isn’t your typical little red schoolhouse. Instead, students live and learn on an armada of barges that floats along the gritty marshes and wetlands of the Bayou State. All the while, workshops on rising sea levels and coastal preservation allow students to confront the realities of climate change face-to-face. A winner of the XQ: Super School Project, New Harmony High’s doors are set to open later this year, when students will learn in a living, breathing lab on the water and get hands-on experience in studying biology, river ecology and environmental justice, in addition to the usual reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. “[The students] are out in the world, not in an ivory tower, not clustered behind the fence,” says Elliot Washor, one of the nontraditional education gurus behind New Harmony High. In fact, this high school isn’t the only one venturing outside the four walls of the stuffy traditional classroom to teach the next generation of pupils.
- At The Mountain School in rural Vermont, students can go off-grid and spend a semester learning on an organic farm.
- Michigan’s Grand Rapids Public Museum School is in a renovated, 80-year-old public museum.
- If you’re stuck in an academic rut, you could always enroll in the Dongzhong Cave School in China.
- Stay in your pajamas while venturing through Fulton High School’s forthcoming virtual reality campus.
- Avoid walls entirely and attend an “open classroom” with “squiggly” desk and a mountaintop for speeches, like the Telefonplan School in Stockholm.
- The Traveling School lets students learn and adventure in the Galapagos, Guatemala and Botswana.
These high schools probably don’t look anything like your alma mater. But their atypical classrooms are designed to encourage out-of-school learning for those who don’t work as well inside the mold of traditional education, says Christopher Hanks, the principal at the Grand Rapids Museum School. The 21st century has flooded schools with high-tech blackboards, virtual reality headsets and other fancy learning gizmos, yet the traditional four walls of most classrooms have mostly stayed put, thanks to an old-era approach to learning. During the Industrial Revolution, educators adopted a factory-model system that monolithically processed students in batches, funneling them in one door as raw material at age 5 and ejecting them out another as finished educational products 12 years later. Back then, isolated boxlike classrooms were designed for crowd control and stodgy lectures, and learning was thought to occur in only prescribed places.
Today, the same ol’ shape, structure and style still persist inside most schools. However, a pioneering group of architects, designers and educators are calling for something decidedly different in the world’s most avant-garde high schools. Research on classroom design has long touted the benefits of flexible learning spaces: Ever-changing surroundings keep students more engaged, spur creativity and motivation and, yes, improve grades. Couple that fact with another study from the University of Salford, in England, which found that the classroom environment can affect a child’s academic progress over a year by as much as 25 percent — for better or worse. There’s been a whole lot more attention paid to high school design as of late, says Kris Magnusson, the dean of education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.: “What that signals is we’re moving away from a rigid, one-size-fits-all idea. … By broadening the repertoire of what we count as educational experiences and legitimizing the different ways in which students learn, we open the door to a whole new world.”
So, just as architects are starting to build better hospitals to aid the dying and better parks to aid play and recreation, the same movement is taking place in schools to create spaces that are more conducive to learning, says Rosan Bosch, the intrepid designer behind the Telefonplan School in Sweden. “We have to accept that design impacts us,” she says, “how we feel, how we react and how we function.”
But not everyone works best in nontraditional environments, and for some students, unconventional settings could even serve as a distraction rather than as an aid to learning. Plus, it’s not as though these ideas on better classroom design haven’t been percolating for millennia — all of ancient Athens was a classroom to Socrates — but it’s easier and cheaper to stick with the “old-school” model, Magnusson says. Most schools, he adds, are “designed to replicate themselves, not to imagine a different future.” In the U.S., standardization is the bedrock of the current education system. So, how are we to evaluate the pedagogic benefits of a semester spent in an organic garden? “There’s this massive inertia in effect” when it comes to today’s massive, unwieldy educational systems, Magnusson claims. ”It’s difficult to get it to change course.”
Still, who wouldn’t have more fun learning on a river barge or in a spooky museum, a la Ben Stiller? Just like kids, the schools of the future will soon outgrow the classroom. Now, all we need is a flying, souped-up school bus to jet them there.