By Omar Roan
Three weeks ago, I walked my daughter through the gates of her new school for the first time. Nervous, shy, and crippled by the significance of the moment, I quietly squeezed her hand for reassurance. We greeted her teachers, plundered her bag for a hat and water bottle and headed to the playground while we waited for the bell to ring. There she set about playing and making quick-fire friends, while I went for a walk through the corridors of my own school memories. A juvenile heaviness took over as I reflected on the quirks of that abnormally rigid place, a place that bore so little resemblance to life as an adult.Not even twenty years ago, my school — like so many others — was still a rehearsal of factory life. Classrooms were regimented, information dictated, any blemishes of individuality found in children duly removed in the process of educating them. This was assembly-line schooling at its finest, a museum of a bygone era that the school itself never lived through.
But times have changed, and more and more schools are changing with it. Those still focused on facts and figures are fast becoming as irrelevant as the information they regularly examine children on. Obedience, anonymity and exam-led learning habits are being replaced by a newfound respect for creativity and interrogating norms.
Put in the proper context — where socio-economic landscapes frame the way we teach our children — the changes are only natural. Today’s social engineers come from design and technology backgrounds, and they are here to overturn the established order of things. In many ways, the two fields provide the perfect partnership for social reform. While technologists disrupt the status quo, designers find ways of integrating new ideas into old landscapes.
With education, designers have taken the lead, starting with a rethinking of school environments. Tokyo’s famed Fuji kindergarten is a perfect example of the changes taking place. The so-called Roof House is an anomaly in an otherwise compact megalopolis. Its 183m perimeter roof both frames the oval-shaped school and provides extra space for its free-range children to run around. On the ground floor, the open plan design blends classrooms, kitchens, dirt patches and trees in a loosely bordered and easily manipulatable space. Within this subtly structured environment, children naturally become more sociable, curious, free-thinking. The design melts away hostile attitudes and invites a more collaborative spirit between children and teachers.
The Roof House rests upon basic principles of protecting and encouraging creativity, community and a sense of equality. There is no factory role planned for these children. Here they will learn to be independent and self-motivated. They will learn to cooperate and at the same time be individuals. And a growing number of schools in Scandinavia, the UK and the US have already adopted similar design philosophies. In some ways, they are constructed embodiments of early learning approaches like Montessori and Reggio Emilia, accommodating nature and the senses in the learning process. Children are invited into beautiful spaces every morning, and given the time and tools to pursue personal interests at their leisure.
And when they do find an interest, technologists uncover their passion.
They are doing this by creating far more immersive ways of learning. The likes of Aurasma and Bitar Labs — augmented reality developers — create software to bring textbooks to life just by floating a mobile phone or tablet over a page. Students can hold a beating heart in their hands, work through complex equations with a virtual instructor, and manipulate planets millions of miles away. Schools, for their part, can offer the benefits of multimillion-dollar facilities with nothing more than fly-eyed goggles and intuitive software.
Technology that can teach means teachers must change as well. As children take centrestage, teachers are becoming more supportive and less intrusive. Even fairly basic technologies like Tip Tap Tap’s interactive desks are quickening this transition. The desks come to life using online learning modules and live data feeds, customising learning paths and measuring development targets respectively. With technology as intermediary, teachers are more informed, the children more independent, the learning dynamic, softened yet strengthened.
As our daughter entered her classroom for the first time, the practical need for an education was clear. Schools certify one’s education as true, but we know that the end only superficially dictates the means. We hope her school puts rote learning to the side and teaches her how to learn for herself. We hope she becomes, in the process of learning, more humane. We hope her teachers protect the gift of fluidity her young mind possesses and act as mentors, not relentless managers. We hope that when she looks back on the decisions we made that brought us to these gates, she doesn’t view her experience the way I view mine.
Omar is a father of two and a strategic communications consultant at Landmark Intl