Our school is incredibly lucky. Built over 100 years ago, transferred from its original site on what is now Sydney’s Central railway station (we got to keep the gates), the school is open, multi-purpose and in use seemingly 24/7. On site we have the boarders’ accommodation, a church, conference facilities, an aged-care home, a convent, oh and a school! Not all of it is my school per se, in fact about half of the block we are on is non-school facilities… or residential land. So for a school which is quite old, it’s pleasing to see that despite being built – as many schools are – through bursts of planning and priority, there is some sense of community and purpose behind the physical environment.

Not all the buildings look the same. They are not connected in the same way from one building to another (you have to know which staircase is the right one for you and which deceptively similar level holds your destination). But, overall, it’s clearly part of the same school. Learning, community, hospitality.. the purpose of the buildings as a connected whole are almost immediately clear.

Reading David Price’s OPEN and now jumping (back) into a bunch of other books including Smart Cities by Anthony M Townsend, it’s clear that the physical spaces we occupy are both a reflection of our collective needs and also the dominance of policy makers during great bursts of planning. After WWII, for example, there was an economic boom in America – shared to varying degrees by countries like Australia – where new technologies such as cars and television directly affected the methods and motivations for travel.

However, the explosion of the size of suburbia – all linked by highways or motorways to the big cities – has not necessarily led to mass cohesion and sense of community that one might expect. Townsend quotes Christopher Alexander, a professor of architecture in the 60s and 70s who was trained as a mathematician, who says that suburbs – if looked at from a bird’s eye view and via a mathematicians brain – look more like a tree than anything else: many disconnected branches all growing from a central hierarchical trunk which leads back and forth to a city. This is compared to cities of old where you could take many different paths to get to the same destination, interacting with different people, spaces and experiences each time. Think Venice, Paris.. that sort of thing. (Yes Melbournites your city is much cooler because you have alley ways that do this.)

So bringing this back to schools, do they reflect a hierarchical or predetermined set of movement and experiences? Can students get to the same destination in a variety of ways and each way adding something of value to that journey? There are obvious limitations for schools – perhaps mostly, and most ironically, at schools in inner city contexts – where space is a premium and routine is often held up as the great social sedative so that students can do less fightin’ and more learnin’.

But what do we lose when we sanitise the design of schools to being a row of boxes connected by a hallway? What human experiences are we trying to inoculate our students from feeling? If we are trying to prepare students for life outside of school (cognitive dissonance warning: our kids actually do live a life outside of school even if we teachers don’t), then why is the design of our schools so increasingly alien to the world of work. Even if the future isn’t as what David Price expresses in OPEN, even if cities aren’t bristling with Arduino devices as the innovators are trying to do in Smart Cities, even if we are stuck with a burdensome curriculum which slams facts and ‘skills’ most students could find on Wikipedia, surely our learning environments should actually reflect the best light, furniture, shape and size appropriate for the very reason schools exist: to create resilient, compassionate, independent, self-aware and critical learners.

The world outside of schools is changing rapidly. Banks such as the National Australia Bank (NAB) and Commonwealth Bank (Commbank) are eschewing large office buildings for all in favour of more flexible workspaces which force people to talk to each other and share resources rather than set up little desk castles. If banks are starting to shift into a more OPEN way of working, surely other conservative institutions such as schools can do the same.

For an example of NAB’s new working environments: http://www.woodsbagot.com/news/pop-up-style-co-working-village-opens-to-the-community-at-nab-docklands

I have seen amazing examples of schools redesigning spaces for learning and sometimes this includes the students actually doing this for themselves. Now that architects and policy makers and – dare I say it – teachers, are beginning to have conversations regarding the best environments for learning, I think there is hope for a bright and vibrant future for school education. Stephen Heppell (@stephenheppell) has been an inspiration to me with his concrete examples (pun intended) of schools that stop and rethink what spaces might look like and include students, parents and other stakeholders in the process.

For examples go to: http://www.pinterest.com/stephenheppell/interesting-learning-places-and-spaces/

I firmly believe that if schools are not given the power to adapt and reshape themselves, or exercise the power they already have, more and more students will begin to ask what school is really for. Obviously school is not just a factory of facts, delivering the formal curriculum into the brains of students Matrix-style – but imagine how much we could achieve if all those facts COULD be just implanted in our brains in such a quick time – they are places of socialisation, of growth, of interaction, of inspiration. They are little microcosms of the world outside the school gate…. or are they? These days, if a student has an internet connection, what need have they of schools as a repository of knowledge? Think Sugata Mitra. Hole in the wall in an Indian slum. No school, but very social. No buildings or hallways, but so much learning.

If my school could talk, I’m sure it would be a riveting (sorry) conversation. Mortar the point (sorry), if my kids could have a say in how their school is designed, I wonder what they would say.

Do you have any concrete examples of how your school environment affects what happens within that environment? Please comment! Good and bad!