Voices in Education

School Buildings – The Last Domino: It’s Time for Learning Spaces to Catch Up
In the debate about reopening schools, everyone seems to agree about one thing: bringing children back to their physical school setting is important. A new study published by MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab titled Imagining September i notes, “One of the most important insights from school closures is the incredible importance of physical school buildings to the work of schools.” The study goes on to quote a district leader who said, “building time will be ‘gold.’”

I respectfully disagree. Building time has not been “gold” for a long time and, after COVID-19, the fallacy that school buildings serve our children well will become that much more evident. ii When schools closed abruptly at the start of the pandemic, educators quickly scrambled to offer the same severely limited experience online that they had been offering students in the physical school setting. Most of the evidence that is starting to filter back from “online schools” is showing that this model does not work, because students are not willing to be held hostage at home in the way they have been in the classroom.

The chart below provides a stark illustration of the extent to which our current model of education is shaped by the school building. The left column describes a defunct educational model that is dictated by the familiar classroom-and-corridor (cells-and-bells) school building. Taken together, the 12 elements that represent the average school day for millions of children and their teachers describe a model of education far removed from the reality of the world beyond school. Yes, the school building is “incredibly important,” but for all the wrong reasons—it prevents schools from delivering the education our children deserve. So how can we redesign the school building to facilitate rather than militate against the delivery of a modern education?

In the right column, we can see how the change in the physical design of the school from a cells-and-bells to a “learning community” layout can dramatically upgrade all aspects of teaching and learning to make them more relevant for today and tomorrow. iii


The good news for schools is that the conversion of a traditional cells-and-bells school into a learning community based design is relatively inexpensive and can be accomplished quickly. Much can be done within capital budgets already set aside by schools and school districts. Even in cases where a bond referendum is needed to obtain construction money, such efforts become far easier when the facility changes are educationally driven.

One by one, the COVID pandemic has upended elements of schooling previously deemed “essential” such as textbooks, standardized tests, mandatory attendance, required number of days in school, and homework. In the shadows stands the sanitized school building waiting to re-exert its socially distanced authority and, in one fell swoop, wipe away all the disruptive innovations its removal from the educational equation had made possible. We do not need to bow to its authority. Today, the traditional school building is the last domino standing between the past and the future. Knocking it down, metaphorically if not literally, is the critical key to unlocking the incredible creative potential of our children, so that they can go on to build a world far better than the one they are inheriting from us.


i Justin Reich and Jal Mehta, “Imagining September: Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools during Covid-19,” MIT Teaching System Lab (July 2020).
ii With all its dysfunction, the physical school is still critically needed for children in underserved communities. For many of these children, school provides a safe haven from abuse and depression, a place to get a heathy meal, and their only access to high speed Internet. However, a well-designed school is just as important for these children as it is for every student.
iii The Learning Community model of school design is fully described in the following two books: 1) Blueprint for Tomorrow—Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning by Prakash Nair, Harvard Education Press, 2014 and 2) Learning by Design. Live | Play | Engage | Create by Prakash Nair, Roni Zimmer Doctori and Dr. Richard F. Elmore, Education Design International, 2020.

About the Author: Prakash Nair is a world-renowned architect, futurist, and the Founding President & CEO of Education Design International. EDI is a global leader for school design with innovative work in 52 countries on six continents. Prakash has won many international awards including the MacConnell Award, the highest honor worldwide for school planning and architecture. He is the author of three books on school design including the highly regarded Blueprint for Tomorrow published by Harvard Education Press (2014). Contact Prakash@EducationDesign.com