What does the future of K-6 education look like?

What does the future of K-6 education look like?


The US has managed to hang onto a 100 year old instructional model far too long – one designed for the industrial age, training our children to work in factories. Why does it refuse to change?

Why is there so much talk about change and so little actual change? Yes, we experimented with open pod concepts in the 60’s … but we’re back to “cells and bells”. Statistically, more and more children are getting lost in our education system – adrift – unable to conform their own style of learning to “the standardized model”. Compound that with a frightening spike in autism, increased rates of illiteracy and drop-outs, and students ill-prepared for the rigor of college. It’s a big problem, demanding a lot of attention from a wide range of specialists.

This imperative drove Gould Evans and the Milpitas Unified School District to host two Think Tank discussions, as part of the initial visioning process for a new K-6 Elementary School located in Milpitas, CA. The idea was to host an engaging and unconventional dialogue among experts from different perspectives to address these challenges. Given what we know about how children learn, what might the future of education look like? Our design team and guest experts took a deep dive into varied instructional models and the overall learning experience. The primary goal for each Think Tank was to challenge the existing educational model and develop ideas that could be applied to a smarter and more adaptive school for 21st century learning.

For each think tank we invited a diverse group of participants from across the country, with expertise across the fields of Education, Technology, Furniture Design, Industrial Design, Landscape Design, Anthropology and Product Design. Both Think Tanks were held at one of our recently completed Learning Centers in Milpitas which proved to be a wonderful testing ground and precedent for the discussions. The highly flexible space allowed the team to test ideas of adaptable learning space, and create an environment conducive to a casual yet provocative discussion. The flexibility of the space allowed us to “right size” it to meet the needs of the forum.

Rose Elementary School Learning Center in Milpitas, CA (architecture by Gould Evans)

Rose Elementary School Learning Center in Milpitas, CA (architecture by Gould Evans)

In preparation for the Think Tank, each of the participants was given some big questions and provocations to consider. The key question: What might your dream school look like? (we discouraged responses about space, and rather focused on the learning experience and instructional model). Drilling deeper, the school district posed the question: How might a school without classrooms function? What if we designed it around learning communities where every teacher was responsible for every student’s success? We structured open-ended questions to provoke a broad range of ideas for the discussion.

The first Think Tank included the following guest experts:

Sean Corcorran- General Manager of Educational Solutions at Steelcase
Trevor Croghan- 3rd generation educator & strategist with One Workplace
Andreas Stravropoulos and Patricia Algara – both with BASE Landscape Architecture

The discussion touched on a broad range of topics in the realm of education and the educational experience. It quickly demonstrated that the current educational classroom model is seriously outdated and that the push for more flexible and adaptable learning environments has become critical.

Andreas and Patricia brought forth key ideas about the importance of “Wild Play” in childhood learning. The notion of Wild Play is simply the ability to play in an unscripted manner, to “get down and dirty” and learn to take risks and negotiate social relationships that might be complicated, unexpected, or unpredictable. This left us wondering how might outdoor educational spaces foster this sense of “Wild Play?”

A “junk playground” designed by Carl Theodor Sorensen in Emdrup, Denmark (image courtesy of the Royal Library, Copenhagen, via the New York Times)

A “junk playground” designed by Carl Theodor Sorensen in Emdrup, Denmark (image courtesy of the Royal Library, Copenhagen, via the New York Times)

Sean Corcorran from Steelcase led the discussion towards ideas about behavior and space, and what the role of space and technology has in influencing pedagogy and vice-versa. Sean stated that most of the time we believe pedagogy drives the change in the design of educational spaces. But many educators he works with challenge this notion; they often believe the opposite, where the design of the space can ultimately change pedagogy and teaching and learning behaviors. When asked what his dream school might look like he stated, “My dream school would be a school where every kid can maximize his or her learning potential.”

Andrea Ballestero and Cassandra Holman participating in Think Tank #2

Andrea Ballestero and Cassandra Holman participating in Think Tank #2

The Second Think Tank included the following guest experts:

Cassandra Holman – Industrial Designer & Faculty at RISD
Andrea Ballestero – Anthropologist & Assistant Professor at Rice University.

We started off with discussions about culture and how schools might become a better resource for their communities. Andrea presented ideas about thinking of the school as a constantly evolving “life world” experience, and referenced a spider-like diagram wherein the “legs” represent paths in a person’s life journey, each path becoming interconnected with one another at the center. It got us thinking about what types of cultural elements might activate the richness contained in each person’s life journey, as well as help foster a better sense of community between one another.

Anthropologist Andrea Ballestero's "life world" concept diagram (courtesy Andrea Ballestero)

Anthropologist Andrea Ballestero’s “life world” concept diagram (courtesy Andrea Ballestero)

Cassandra led the discussion towards ideas of Free Play and shared her inspiration from Adventure Playgrounds, originated by the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson in the early 1930’s. This notion of play-based learning has led to some of Cassandra’s current work, including her design of Rigamajig- a large scale building kit for hands-on free play and learning. She talked about the notion of risk and how we might begin to approach risk within educational pedagogy. One of the key ideas that Cassandra brought forth was the notion of innovation vs. invention in education. Much of today’s design culture is focused around the buzzword “innovation”. We are constantly pushing students to become innovators. But as Cas explained, “We should focus our efforts more on invention and pushing students to invent new ideas rather than just improving upon existing conditions.”

Designer Cas Holman's PlayKit for the High Line (image courtesy Fast Company http://www.fastcodesign.com/1664804/three-keys-to-creative-kid-design-from-the-creator-of-high-line-playground#5)

Designer Cas Holman’s PlayKit for the High Line (image courtesy Fast Company http://www.fastcodesign.com/1664804/three-keys-to-creative-kid-design-from-the-creator-of-high-line-playground#5)

A process driven by inquiry – the future of education depends on it if we are to evoke change. We look forward to extending this cross disciplinary reach, seeking great ideas from more “non-architects”. It’s invigorating and exciting to see a viable future school model emerging. And the inspiration from these guests has been a tremendous inspiration to the teachers and leadership who will be responsible for leading this great school – one which will hopefully set a precedent for a new school model. We look forward to expanding on the questions and ideas posed in our Think Tanks, and sharing some more in-depth posts on each “thinker’s” ideas here at whitespace. We look forward to your feedback!