Michael Horn: The Future of School Design

The Future of School Design / Michael B. Horn

The steady march of disruptive innovation is growing louder in K–12 schools across America. It is introducing new learning designs — powered by blended-learning models, which mix brick-and-mortar schools with online learning where each student has some control over the time, place, path, and pace of their learning—to upend the traditional classroom.

The most disruptive of these models invite us to rethink the use of time and space in learning along several dimensions, including personalization, access and equity, and productivity.

Ultimately these new models could allow all students to build their passion and fulfill their unique human potential—something today’s schools do not do. But for this to happen, we will need to rethink the physical design of schools themselves.


Legacy schools

Today’s schools were built based on a factory model of schooling in which students proceed in lockstep through school based on their age regardless of their distinct learning needs. It was built to optimize efficiency for universal schooling in an era where that had never been done before. It was not built to optimize learning.

Because the disruption of blended learning is emerging to a large extent within the physical architecture of these existing “egg-crate” model schools, this architecture could allow the traditional classroom to harness online learning as a sustaining innovation to preserve itself and co-opt the disruption for a long time to come.

This is the challenge before school designers over the next several years: to create new designs that harness the power of new learning models for years to come, even as those new models are still in their infancy, and to avoid doubling down on the traditional school design that would harden the factory model of schooling.


New school designs

For many, particularly those who are seeking to bring sustaining improvements to the traditional classroom model, the basic layout of egg-crate classrooms may be perfectly adequate. Many blended programs, however, are choosing to rearrange their furniture and physical space to align with the principles of student agency, flexibility, and choice that are at the core of their new models.

For example, the Khan Lab School, an independent school founded by the renowned Sal Khan in California, has converted the bottom floor of an office park into a learning studio. There are no interior walls in the studio; it feels more like a one-room schoolhouse, in keeping with Khan’s book The One-World Schoolhouse, than like a standard school building. The open space gives students the flexibility they need to complete collaborative term projects, such as starting a greeting card business or building a computer from scratch, while providing distinct spaces for individual work online or small-group instruction.

In Chicago, Intrinsic Schools, a public charter school, operates in a building that Larry Kearns, an architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects, designed. When designing it, he said it was key to turn off the autopilot switch and focus on the activities that fuel learning. Because “learning is monopolized by large-group direct instruction, all you need are cellular classrooms, with rows of desks focused on a single instructor” in a traditional school, he told me. But because blended-learning models use multiple modes of learning, they need spaces designed to support different modalities.

When designing the building for Intrinsic, Kearns first spent a year prototyping ideas with the schools in multiple pilots in temporary spaces. Without the feedback from those pilots, he said, the ultimate learning space would have looked totally different and been based on assumptions that proved false.

In Kearns’ words, the school looks like the following:

Each grade at Intrinsic, which includes eight instructors and up to 180 students, is accommodated in a pair of interconnected “pods,” each with its own acoustically isolated room. Each pod is an open studio with spaces dedicated to individual, collaborative, and small-group learning. One pod focuses on a humanities curriculum and the other on a STEM curriculum. In each pod, a “coastline” of workspaces provides for personalized online learning, “exchange tables” host peer-to-peer learning, and “pop-up classes” provide areas for teachers to work with 12 students at a time. These spaces are skillfully interlocked with one another to minimize disturbance between activities. First time visitors to Intrinsic are always surprised by the corridors. You won’t find hallway lockers or the ubiquitous double-loaded school corridor anywhere. Instead, you will find hallways lined with windows and views. Since Intrinsic students use Chromebooks, they don’t have to rely on lockers to store books as they move from room to room.

The resulting building has far more space dedicated to learning than a traditional building where so much square footage is wasted on large hallways—55 percent compared to 25 percent at most new district high schools in Chicago. As a result, it is a much more cost-effective building. Intrinsic, which was built with union labor, enjoyed cost savings that were at least twice that of schools of a comparable size.


Challenges to moving in this direction

There is a lot of inertia in school building design, so moving in this direction will not be easy. There are two obvious challenges.

First, in the 1970s a wave of builders tried to move to an open classroom design, which ultimately failed as educators spent the 1980s and 1990s erecting walls. There is a difference now, however. In the 1970s, there was an assumption that any learning activity could occur anywhere. In other words, you wouldn’t need to design specific spaces for specific modalities of learning. In trying to be all things to all modalities, however, the spaces were suboptimal for any activity. On top of that, in the absence of any technological advances, the dominant model of instruction was still a teacher talking to her class, which produces noise that could disturb a neighboring class or silent learning activity. Blended learning changes this dynamic because of the introduction of online learning, but it’s still important to bear in mind that spaces in new buildings must be purpose-built and not try to be universal in nature.

Second, a significant number of building codes have emerged in districts and cities over the years that are at odds with what designers and educators may want to do with new building designs. With Intrinsic Schools, for example, Kearns said they had to apply “for every kind of code relief possible. Since the codes only referenced the egg-crate school, no one knew how to apply the rules. So the major trap to avoid is the impulse to design schools literally by the books that exist now.”


Other opportunities with new designs

There are two other clear opportunities with new school design. First, there is the opportunity to create spaces that feature far more interaction for teachers with their fellow peers. Research has shown this professional interaction is a big positive, and new designs can greatly increase the number of interactions beyond anything we are accustomed to, as teachers can co-teach and students will benefit from exposure to a much larger social group and multiple instructors with different strengths and styles.

Second, it’s likely that with technology handling basic instruction, maker spaces will become far more common in schools. These spaces will allow students to work on 3D-printers, laser cutters, and more to explore and test ideas in the humanities, math, science, and engineering.


The future

As Kearns said, “If blended learning is a more effective way to educate, it is similarly a more efficient way to build schools.” Although the best many educators can do at the moment is hack their current space with simple workarounds, the real example of a missed opportunity is when leaders get the chance to build a new building or renovate an old, and they choose to perpetuate the integrated factory-type blueprint. After all, who wants to be the designer that builds the last twentieth-century school building?

Michael Horn speaks and writes about the future of education and works with a portfolio of education organizations to improve the life of each and every student. He is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a non-profit think tank, and he serves as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions. Horn is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Michael B. Horn is the EDspaces 2018 Keynote Speaker at the Opening Plenary on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at 9:30 am at the Tampa Convention Center.