New Schools, New Designs

There are always people looking for new designs for schools. The charter school movement has taken new designs and funded them through new funding structures that allow much of the money allocated to schools to pass directly to those schools. Traditional funding for schools can see a diminished amount of money for new designs as layers of administration may be paid under traditional funding structures. In all cases, the idea that something new can be designed is engaging.

School Reforms

One can trace the history of school design through the identification of school reforms that represent a trend in thinking. For example, the progressive movement advocated for more student-centered school design and the efficiency movement advocated for more regimented school designs. In a very general way, designers of schools usually pick a more progressive or more efficient design, but the actual school design may outlive its trendy school reform design of the moment, as the pendulum swings back and forth between these two general reforms.

Balancing the Trends

Engaging as school design is, the real focus should be students! How can the new school serve new students in a variety of ways. Choosing a particular design could be helpful to the imagined population of new students but it may not serve all of them. So getting caught up in a new trend idea and boxing the design into an unchangeable plan might be something to avoid. For example, adopting the trend to offer breakfast to every student may not align with student needs when only half the student body wants the breakfast. This non-flexible design may cause unwanted changes later in the year that cost real money.

Transforming Through Experimentation

It may be more cost effective to design a school that is flexible with the emphasis on an evolving strategy for engaging those new students. For example, classrooms might be more useful over time if they were not domain specific, such as a science or math or English classroom, but rather were adaptable to the evolving needs of teachers and students. Integration of domains such as arts integrated common core curriculums have had real success as documented in my research (Southworth, 2017). Part of teacher planning might entail more time for teachers to plan and organize a flexible classroom use. In fact teachers may feel more empowered if they were able to contribute to the design of a school and also contribute to the day-to-day management of how it was used. This experimental approach might lead to higher student and teacher engagement.

The Lab School

Whether you want to name your school, “the Imagination Factory,” or the “Wicked Awesome Play Group,” designing a flexible, adaptable set of classrooms could be supported by the idea of a “lab” school. There have been many lab schools throughout history but they all have ongoing experimentation in mind. Although some lab schools might settle in to their adopted reforms with less flexibility, the idea that schools can regularly change is powerful. Teacher observation of the change that is needed is a valuable design characteristic. Perhaps the most important idea is that in order to really change schools, we must be ready to respond to evolving trends in school reform by adopting characteristics of school reform trends rather than the whole reform. Doing so in a timely way may be as hard as changing the tire on a moving car. But keeping up may be better than watching all the tires go flat on your school reform.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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