4 Ways the Pandemic Experience is Reshaping School Design for the Next Generation

By Megan Fagge, Sophia Tarkhan, Maureen Wiechert

While the coronavirus flipped so many of our societal norms upside down, our K-12 Studio paused to consider the future of school design strategies and how time tested strategies might evolve due to the pandemic. In May, our design leaders from across the firm began reaching out to personal and professional networks of friends, neighbors, past clients and current collaborators to convene virtual discussion forums. Participants ranged from principals and teachers to students and their parents, and the goal of the forums was to better understand how schools are approaching remote learning, both prior to the pandemic as well as presently, and to understand how this time might shape our understanding of education.

As designers, and a former classroom teacher in the case of Megan Fagge, we had a lot of questions and our participants had plenty to share about what was happening in the here and now. But more importantly, we aimed to understand how these experiences could illuminate new ideas with the potential to reshape our school systems in lasting ways, and in turn, lead us to rethink how we design K-12 learning environments for the next generation.

While the pandemic has brought many challenges and hardships, our participants shared how it has also brought possibility, creativity and new perspective. We were interested to discover several common themes emerging across the forum conversations.

1. Learning is relational.

From chatting with classmates in the hallway to team practices after-school, our students expressed sadness over missing the connections they had with their peers and their teachers during the period of remote-only school. They overwhelmingly responded that they couldn’t wait to return to their school buildings.

What we didn’t anticipate was the extent to which students articulated the impact their relationships had on their learning. The students spoke clearly about their relationships being a key element in their motivation to learn. There is a joy in connection, a shared spark in learning something together that is engaging for many students. It seemed the relationships didn’t exist alongside the learning, but rather the learning was happening, in part, because of the relationships. Without the “together” part of learning, interest quickly waned.

I lost my motivation. Without my friends there, it didn’t seem as interesting, and I stopped going to the online classes. It was my friends who texted and said, ‘Come on. Stick with it. We’re doing it together.’ So I kept going.” – 8th grader

Not only were they lacking the energy and drive they received from learning with other students, many expressed that they attend very large schools, and consequently do not the opportunity to develop strong bonds with the adults there. Several shared that they do not rely on teachers for clarifications to assignments, for study help, or questions about the lessons. They rely on one another. Feeling cut off from classmates, and alone in figuring out homework and lessons, some expressed difficulty.

I miss my robotics team. Learning at home is not the same. I really learn from the team.” – 9th grader

And while one might suspect that students’ versatility with online environments and their reputation as digital natives would have made this experience social, students expressed that their connection with other kids waned during the many weeks at home. According to the students, the digital connection exists as a kind of supplement to what is happening in person. When the in-person connection was removed, the digital connection fizzled in time as well.

Not only does this feedback illustrate why there is still a role for physical buildings in our school systems, but it also solidifies our understanding that hallways, outdoor courtyards and other breakout areas that provide space for connection are in fact primary to a holistic educational experience. Nearly all of the students expressed that they did not build relationships in classrooms. Their classmates, those that motivated and engaged them in learning, became their friends at soccer practice, robotics club, and other extracurricular activities. And when asked what they missed the most, it was these activities they listed. Perhaps extracurriculars, often regarded as secondary, are foundational to learning. Or perhaps they foster the kinds of active and interactive experiences from which our students both form relationships and do their most profound learning. Either way, it was clear that learning is a social experience, and the shared spaces that foster connection are integral as we consider the future of education.

There is something in the interstitial space, the ‘in-between’. It’s the incidental social contact, smiles and small conversations that hold value we haven’t been able to measure yet.” – High School Engineering Teacher

2. There’s room for growth in student agency.

If lost social connection is something students have been grieving, newfound independence is something they are loving. An increased emphasis on learner-led models was already emerging pre-pandemic, and remote learning seemed to provide a boost to this trend. Students told us they want the opportunity to study topics more deeply, to think more critically, to create hands-on projects, and to manage themselves — both their own time and learning environments. While at home, through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, many students were given the freedoms for which they have yearned. Student after student expressed a desire to cast off the yoke of traditional learning formats when they return to school.

The independent research projects we were given were great. So much better than just taking down boring notes in class. The classroom overviews of topics are so condensed. The details which make the topic interesting are completely lost. Being able to study something in depth was much better.” – 9th grader

I loved the independence. They let you know what you were doing, and then you just organized yourself. In school, everything is micro-managed: how I take notes, how I sit in the chair, everything.” – 10th grader

The students’ desire for their learning closely echoes the teachers’ own hopes. In our virtual discussions, independent learners eager to pursue a self-paced and personalized education seemed to be preferred by both sides of the classroom, which leads us to question what might be in the way of that.

3. Metrics drive education systems. But, which numbers count most?

The shared experience of a pandemic has jolted all of us out of our routines. Things that once seemed so “normal” have been stripped away, allowing us to see old habits and daily patterns, as well as the metrics we use to measure them, with fresh eyes.

The length of a school day, for example, or even days of the school week or calendar year, have been thrown out the window for the time being. Standardized testing, grading scales and college admissions requirements are being waived in certain areas. And amid a backdrop of a global health crisis combined with civic uprisings, we’ve also been reminded that many of our most valuable lessons — like compassion and kindness — can’t be defined as clearly as a mathematical equation.

In forum after forum teachers spoke passionately with one another about soft skills, character development, social-emotional learning — engaging one another in a fundamental reevaluation of not just how we measure and evaluate progress, but the merits of what we’ve elected to measure.

Re-assessing is liberation. Our students need skills not just content coverage.” — Head of Upper School

Everything we do in the classroom needs to be responsive to learning outcomes. Content is no longer the primary learning outcome.” — High School History Teacher

Our assessments are not useful. We still have not figured out how to measure the qualitative – the things we find truly valuable upstream.”  — Middle School Math Teacher

There were many innovative ideas about how a combination of methods might be used to design new learning environments that support learners and educators and facilitate the kinds of outcomes we know to be most valuable. It was inspiring to hear their passion, their thoughtfulness, and to begin to see the outlines of a very different educational environment taking shape.

4. Equity is about variety, personalization, and opportunity.

In the years preceding quarantine, a commitment to equity in our schools was building in public and private institutions across the country. The hurdles to achieve equity were significant and difficult to overcome, but momentum was growing. Now, despite these good intentions, the rapid shift to remote learning has not narrowed, but widened the divide. The inequities at home have become more apparent and their impact on learning increased.

Throughout our forums, we heard sad, expected things about the struggle to support equity. But we also heard many hopeful and surprising things about the potential of new learning methods.

Some of our children who have exceptionalities that may cause them to struggle socially were able to focus on learning. There were fewer distractions to navigate at home, including social norms, and we found some students really did better.”  — Middle School Teacher

I found multiple avenues for participation in the digital format. Allowing chats, polls, small group breakouts, helped me reach a diversity of students.”   — Science Center Teacher

I have students who need to work to support their families. So the option of asynchronous learning was a great benefit to them.” — High School Teacher

We have to remember that this remote learning happened very quickly. It was brand new and totally different. Some of the equity issues stemmed in part from that. If we utilize these tools with purpose and planning, they could be very helpful in creating equity.” — Elementary School Teacher

So how do we apply these lessons once we return to in person learning? If an English language learner is intimidated to engage in class, what social and physical changes can we make to give him comfort and confidence? If a student of color struggles to find a teacher who looks like her as a confidant and mentor, how do we nourish those relationships inside and outside the classroom? If a student comes from a home where educational support is not available, such as having parent(s) who work long hours to make ends meet, how do we assure he has the same opportunities and support as his peers?

Achieving equity is about knowing and meeting each student where they are so that all students have a fair opportunity to thrive.

Next Steps

While the discourse facilitated in our forums was incredibly insightful and inspiring, our conversations and work are continuing — both in our communities and then later, within our firm through design charrettes. We hope you’ll stay tuned as we continue listening and learning in our endless pursuit for more thoughtful architecture.

When it comes to the future of school design, creating sustainable solutions will require teamwork from all angles. If you’re interested in joining the conversation or participating in a future forum, please contact the K-12 Education Studio.

by Sophia Tarkhan, Megan Fagge, Maureen Wiechert and Vivian Mogwanja

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