by J. A. Ginsburg
Close your eyes. Think back to when you were in elementary school. What do you remember?
For me, it’s the smell of mimeographed hand-outs, still damp with purple ink, and tall windows with tan shades. It’s polished terrazzo floors and my desk with a lift-up top. It’s the certainty of bells, the slam of lockers, the echoes of kick-balls bouncing in the gym. It’s the smell of a bologna sandwich in a brown paper bag and the challenge of eating “strawberry” ice cream from a little plastic cup armed only with a thin hourglass-shaped sliver of wood.
Construction paper. Pencil sharpeners. Crayons. Manila folders. Paste. On the swings, trying to touch the sky with my toes, and climbing metal monkeybars, giggling with my girlfriends.
It’s walking six blocks to and from school every day with my older siblings, navigating snowbanks in the winter and watching cottonwood seeds drift by come spring.
It’s the light in the classroom on a rainy day and listening to my teacher read the class a chapter from Stuart Little.
My memories of actual in-class instruction are rather dim, even though I spent thousands of hours in school and always did well. Somewhere in there I learned how to read, write and “do” math. A few wonderful teachers—and one utter disaster—stand out, but most of the memories have to do with places and senses: what I felt more than what I thought.
I was surprised by what had faded from memory and what had managed to cut through with such stunning clarity. Yet it makes sense from the perspective of a young child, for whom learning, like breathing, is just something that happens. Whether a child is learning how to read or figuring how to navigate a difficult classroom, she is learning…
And, unlike adults, who tend to think “thinking” is a neck-up activity, young children are much more tuned into “multiple intelligences,” gathering and synthesizing information from all their senses. Divisions between mind and body are blurrier. To think—and to learn—is to move, smell, touch, see, hear.
THE THIRD TEACHER
I took this meander back to childhood after reading (make that “gulping”) The Third Teacher, a book / “collaboration project” created by:
- OWP/P Cannon Design, an American architecture firm specializing in school buildings
- VS Furniture, a Germany company with a rich century-plus history that includes working with Maria Montessori herself
- Bruce Mau Design, a Canada-based consultancy known for combining a “design-thinking” approach with a futurist perspective
The eponymous “third teacher” is the environment, a reference to the Reggio Emilia interactions-based approach to education: adults, peers, surroundings. School buildings and classrooms have a profound impact on how we develop and what we learn. Or what we don’t learn.
As common-sense as that sounds, it is too often overlooked, with especially dramatic and potentially tragic implications for young children.
The Third Teacher, which developed through a series of workshops in the United States, Canada, Germany and England, is split into eight sections, covering “79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning.” It begins at the beginning with Maslow’s basic needs and a two-page spread of gobsmacking statistics:
- Students with limited classroom daylight were outperformed by those with the most natural light by 20% in math and 26% on reading tests
- Asthma is the most common chronic disorder in childhood, currently affecting an estimated 6.2 million children under 18 years of age
- Many classrooms feature a speech intelligibility rating of 75% or less. That means listeners understand only 75% of the words read from a list
- American school children missed 12 million days of school due to the asthma
Clean air. Good light. Good acoustics. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask, yet nearly a quarter of US schools are in serious need of repair.
Even the most inspired educators are stymied when forced to do battle with their classrooms. It is a waste not only of precious time and effort, but also of precious money. This is classic “low-hanging fruit”: Green schools aren’t just better for learning, they are also cheaper to run:
- The financial benefits of greening school are about $70 per square foot, more than 20 times as high as the cost of going green
- Schools in the US spend $7.8 billion on energy each year—more than the cost of computers and textbooks combined
- On average, green schools saved $100,000 per year—enough to hire two new teachers, buy 200 new computers, or purchase 5,000 new textbooks
FUTURE / PRESENT / PAST
The need to design for the future is an underlying theme throughout the book. Technological capacity doubles each year, notes Bruce Mau. That means “…children starting kindergarten this fall will have…a million times greater capacity to shape the world around them by the time they finish university.” One look at at an iPad—a device that didn’t exist before 2010—and instinctively you know this staggering fact to be true.
But it is goes much deeper than ever-gee-whizzier tools. Schools are charged with preparing children for a world none of us can entirely imagine, for jobs that don’t yet exist, for a future full of uncertainties. How will climate change affect...everything? Will the planet’s natural resources be able to support a global population expected to punch through the 8 billion mark by 2020’s, a 30% increase from 2000?
In order to “shape the world around them” wisely, today’s children first have to understand it, which leads to a second major theme running through the book: environmental awareness and ecological thinking. Schools for the future need to be designed for all sorts of connections: technological, social, neurological, physical, cultural, environmental. And some of the best answers for how to do this come from the past.
My elementary school was not built to be green (in fact, it was ultimately torn down due to asbestos). But those tall windows not only let it wonderful light (back when light was light and not “daylighting”), they also easy to open, too. How delicious to smell a spring breeze or hear the rustle of falling leaves in autumn. The daily walk to school, though a trudge in winter, guaranteed that we all spent some time outdoors. Recess—we had three, two 15-minute breaks and and a full period for lunch—gave us a chance to run around and explore. By contrast:
- 7% of first graders (in the US) now get no recess at all, with many more having their minutes drastically cut; the poorer the school, the less time is dedicated to it.
- On average, children of primary school age spend 9 hours per day sitting.
- While 71% of adult Americans say they walked or rode a bike to school when they were a child, today less than two in ten (17%) of school-age children walk.
- The percentage of children who live within a mile of school and who walk or bike to school has declined by nearly 25% in the last 30 years. Barely 21% of children today live within a mile of their school.
This is not helping the cause vis a vis the obesity epidemic, either.
Notably, many of the of the ideas presented in The Third Teacher have dovetailing “goods”:
- School gardens double as living science labs connecting children to nature while producing tasty vegetables for a healthier lunch
- Playgrounds are places for exercise and imagination (“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere” – Albert Einstein—perhaps my favorite quote from this quotalicious tome)
- Desks and chairs designed to work with young fidgety bodies, rather than restrain them, help release nervous energy, making it possible for children to think better. The mind-body connection is particularly important in the young. Movement plays a key role neurological wiring.
- The school itself as community “teacher,” a working example of how to to upgrade to greener design
All 79 ideas, along with a selection of case studies, are available for free on the Third Teacher website, but the book is the better package. Each idea is paired with a case study or a short essay by a delightful range of experts, spanning the famous—Ken Robinson, Raffi, James Dyson—to the famous-in-their-communities—teachers, parents, students. Studies a-plenty are excerpted and quoted. The insights of Maslow, Piaget, Gardner, Dewey and Toffler infuse the conversation—and a conversation it is.
This is not a standard book with page after page of identically laid-out text, with a few illustrations sprinkled in. This is a design extravaganza that manages to mix an astounding amount of information onto every page (hence the plentiful post-its on my well-thumbed copy pictured above…) The Third Teacher is a reference designed to engage, culminating, of course, with idea #79: “Add to this list.”
So get to it. The future is coming fast and there’s no time to waste.
Ken Robinson on educational paradigms (live link / embed below may not appear on iPad)