A Chance to Evolve

How we can move forward in the face of our new reality 

Anticipating Positive Outcomes

As School Districts across the country shift rapidly to accommodate distance learning, it is obvious that things are not going to be “business as usual.” The events and demands of the short-term needs we are facing will likely alter the way we think about education. This is a great time to focus on where opportunity exists to develop new systems to bring us into the future. We are actively designing a variety of new educational buildings and this has opened up a wider array of possibilities and considerations than may not have been possible even one month ago. As we continue this discussion, here are some of our hopes and predictions for the road in front of us.

 

It’s Not Going To Be All About Classrooms

The pandemic has moved the process of education from classrooms to living rooms. Educators are rapidly implementing new digital formats for teaching, while students are engaging in new learning processes. These will become new norms for all, and as students return to schools, the built environment will need to change to incorporate these new methods of learning. We predict the ratio of learners will range from one-on-one, to small group forums, to traditional sized classroom settings, to larger broad-based groups. This shift will require a larger variety of flexible learning environments. These are not the “open-plan” buildings of the 1970’s, but are instead buildings comprised of differing spaces to accommodate varying sizes and styles of content delivery. While some students may thrive on digital learning, others may benefit from discussion with peers in group settings, and others may require more dedicated instructor time. The spaces needed to accommodate these formats will not be limited to standard classrooms. In fact, the overall demand for classrooms will likely decrease, but new spaces for learning will need to emerge to meet evolving learning options. 

 

One anticipated outcome is the greater opportunity to obtain instruction through an “on-demand” format that digital learning provides. We will likely find it has the ability to accommodate a wider range of sizes, but in many formats, it will be predominantly a one-way format for instruction. This is not unlike large lecture rooms where discussion is minimized based on the number of participants. These types of rooms are less likely to be utilized in the future, while spaces that accommodate the personal connection to a greater degree such as smaller seminar rooms, conference rooms, or even digital landing spaces with furniture and technology to accommodate virtual conversations are the more prevalent norm and the spaces in highest demand. School settings will continue to build on the collaborative work environments present in contemporary office and workspace design. 

 

Another related aspect of this new learning style will be the shifting paradigm of time. As students are able to review and comprehend digital content at their own pace, some will find a greater ability to work forward on some aspects of the study, allowing greater ability to practice what they are learning through tangible experiences. This is not something they can easily do at home – very few of us have science labs or art studios in our homes, for example. The hands-on aspect of learning provides greater comprehension through trial and error, greater retention of knowledge, and the ability to adjust and improvise for different results. It also allows students to explore areas of interest to a greater degree. We anticipate a shift towards a wider variety of workshop and lab spaces where this discovery and exploration can occur, along with associated spaces for presentation and collaborative discussion with peers.

 

Digital learning isn’t only going to develop skills in teachers for creating content. It will also require students to explore alternatives to demonstrating mastery utilizing technology to capture and record their achievements. Young learners already embrace a DIY spirit for digital documentation. Educational environments can further this by providing higher level recording and editing scenarios as well as playback environments for review. The outcomes could further the students ability to present ideas for feedback to a much wider audience and improve overall skill sets for presentation.

 

There are many Districts who have already recognized the need for these types of change, and the majority of projects we have been involved with over the past decades have already been implementing these ideas into their changes. There are many, however, that haven’t been able to make these improvements based on either a lack of support or understanding from their communities on “why this is important now?” The school designs of the past simply don’t include the variety and types of spaces students need to increase their overall learning experience. As everyone gains first-hand knowledge on what could be different based on new norms, and where the greatest needs remain for change in environments once students return to the schools, we believe the conversations will be much more common and open in all communities, and a new investment will be made in adapting our schools for the future.

 

Greater Focus on Providing Human and Social Services

What is already becoming obvious in just a very short span of time is the awareness that while educational delivery may be able to be temporarily accommodated through distance learning, it is not a viable substitute (or replacement) for social development and mental wellbeing. Skills being learned in school are not only on instructional course work, but also through interactions, discussions, and mediations with students’ peers and staff. Schools will continue to provide this critical development as they transition from young children to young adults and develop these less tangible real life skills.

 

A more troubling fact many are beginning to realize is the critical role schools play in providing need to at-risk students and families. There are a significant number of students who rely on schools to provide some level of food, mental and physical healthcare, and social service assistance and protection. For many of these students, without this base level of needs being met, the chances of them achieving similar academic performance to their peers is not possible. Ideally, there are two potential outcomes. First, with greater awareness, we will see an increase in spaces dedicated to providing these needs within our school systems. This action will equalize the starting point for all students to allow for greater achievement in learning. Second, we will develop a wider range of partnerships between School Districts, Governmental Agencies, and private partnerships to administer these services as part of a greater community effort. Schools could play a significant role in physically fostering these integrated services as the primary host site for students and families.

 

An Increased Awareness of the Superheroes Among Us

It has taken a pandemic to remind people of the important role educators play in our communities. In addition to being the ones we trust our students with, they do much more than just “teach.” They not only provide the services and develop the skill sets previously discussed, but also provide a level of consistency and stability in our communities. Any working parent now at home with their student is getting a firsthand experience of educators’ countless responsibilities. On top of all this, teachers reinvented their entire approach to education state by state in many cases within a two week time frame!

 

So why is this rekindled awareness so important? It will give educators a voice where it has become increasingly marginalized over the years. Society will be more likely to listen when school systems ask for support for critical needs. Operational and capital funding will gain greater awareness and support when requested. When the need to adjust practices for greater outcomes are discussed, there will be less of an instinct to ask “why can’t you just keep doing it like you did before?” Education is one of the only aspects in our lives that relies on voter support to address the majority of the system’s needs. Hopefully these events will remind everyone of the importance of this support. 

 

We Are All In This Together

There is not a single person who is unaffected by these events. The severity of each situation is different, but we are all going through new challenges and experiences we never thought to be possible. As a result, the overwhelming sense of support for each other is noticeably different. In a nation that has seemed so divided in recent years, it is inspiring to see such connectivity and positive outreach on social media, in our email and text correspondence and in the news. The number one question seems to be “How are you doing, and is there anything I can do to help?” It will be incumbent on every one of us to continue to make this commitment long after we determine what the new norms will be.  

Our hope is the predictions outlined will allow us to make a lasting move towards a stronger society. We can continue to design and evolve learning spaces that allow for students to build on the positive experiences developed as part of this disruption. We can find greater opportunities for creating collocated support systems for Education, Human and Social Services, Healthcare and even potentially intergenerational living. We can find new ways to support our educational communities once this time has passed. While there will be challenges, as there always are during these moments in time, the possibilities of “what could be” are immense. There is no better time to pursue positive change than when change is inevitable. We are optimistic that together we can work to evolve and rebuild the education environment, like generations before us, into a better one for the future.

Author:

Vaughn Dierks

Partner | AIA