In the dawn of my architectural career, we were designing schools as fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear blast. In the twilight of my career, we are designing schools for security in the event of weapon-toting individuals or terrorist attacks. What has happened in school design since the advent of the Beatles, Berlin Wall, Space Age, educational technology and air conditioning in classrooms?
Winning School Fallout Shelter Designs (Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense: GPO, May 1963) states that the objectives of the competition were to serve the national interest by encouraging the creation of shelter designs to "conserve materials, manpower and money; create fallout protection in the maximum area of the school; incorporate attractive features; and produce structures of aesthetic appeal."
In the 1960s, many schools were designed to respond to the new philosophy of individualized education. The open plan concept was developed by Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL) in response to changing pedagogical theory and practice.
In the 1980s, school designs responded to the idea of outcome-based education (OBE). All students were expected to succeed and achieve specified outcomes. OBE adjusted the learning time to meet the individual students' needs.
The year 1991 is acknowledged as the beginning of the "Knowledge Age" because expenditures spent on information and communications technologies exceeded the total money spent on Industrial Age goods in the United States. Twentieth-century schools were organized to produce Industrial Age worker-citizens.
If schools are to prepare students for successful lives in the 21st century, they need to develop skills and dispositions different from those that were required in the 20th century. The future Knowledge Age worker-citizens need to be taught to locate, assess and represent new information quickly; communicate and work productively with others; learn to be adaptable, creative and innovative; understand things at a "big picture" level; and motivate to think and learn as individuals.
Flexibility seems to the focus for 21st-century learning spaces, but educators, administrators, facility directors, educational planners and architects all may define it differently.
Children will graduate into a world very different from today. Rapidly changing economies, technologies and societies are connecting the world more than ever. New skill sets in global knowledge are needed that go beyond math, reading and science basics. The term flexibility has taken on new meanings over the last 40 years. It's time to update our vocabulary with a more pertinent term: "responsive." Space and systems need to be responsive for customization:
To functionally adapt to evolving educational programs, philosophies, technologies, delivery methodologies and varying size class groupings.
To enhance learning by inspiring creativity, fostering and promoting collaboration, integrating activities and disciplines.
To provide sustainable life-cycle climate design, excellent acoustics and indoor air quality.
In the Knowledge Age, change, not stability, is a given — teaching, learning and facility needs are changing. The spatial confines as well as the configuration of the space with its fixtures, furniture and equipment will be evolving constantly to meet the ever-changing nature of technology, teaching and learning. The open plan, with updated innovations, is still influential today with its inherent responsiveness to adapt to a variety of class sizes and activities.
Change is a constant — yet one familiar struggle remains: How to accommodate the diverse learning abilities and talents of every student so all are motivated to learn the necessary skills needed for their adult lives. Another familiar struggle: designing facilities that create security and refuge for occupants.