A community about to build or rehab a school often creates checklists of best practices, looks for furniture that matches its mascot, and orders shiny new lockers to line its corridors. These are all fine steps, but the process of planning and designing a new school requires both looking outward (to the future, to the community, to innovative corporate powerhouses) as well as inward (to the playfulness and creativity that are at the core of learning).
In many ways, what makes the Googles of the world exceptional begins in the childhood classroom — an embrace of creativity, play, and collaboration. It was just one year ago that 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number-one leadership competency in our complex global marketplace. We can no longer afford to teach our kids or design their schoolhouses the way we used to if we’re to maintain a competitive edge. In looking at various exemplary workplaces such as IDEO, Google, and Pixar, we can glean valuable lessons about effective educational approaches and the spaces that support them.
Learning from IDEO: A transparent space where projects take the spotlight
The design and innovation firm IDEO tacitly understands how office environments help or hinder the creative process. Every decision made in its Chicago design office reveals and nurtures its culture, with an open layout that spurs collaboration. Here, team project rooms frame an open studio for the interdisciplinary work of designers, business strategists, and programmers. A café/forum area, prototyping workshop, Chicago-gazing roof deck, and community garden support the studio’s evolving life, without being too prescriptive.
What would it mean for schools to have a culture centered on design thinking and interdisciplinary projects instead of siloed subjects? What if the process of education were as intentionally crafted as the products of education (i.e., we always think about the book report or the final project, but not the path to get there). What if teachers were treated as designers?
There are some schools out there that are doing just that, including High Tech High, an innovative collection of charter schools in Southern California led by lawyer-cum-carpenter-cum-education innovator Larry Rosenstock and a diverse team of adult learners. The model is deeply rooted in project-based learning (PBL), whereby students learn academic knowledge while picking up real-life skills such as collaboration and critical thinking. With this pedagogical foundation and supportive spaces, students can produce meaningful and integrated projects — from a conservation book series on the San Diego Bay to a bilingual cookbook. Such interdisciplinary work is supported by a thoughtful facility design that displays flexibility, ownership, transparency, and originality. On its website, High Tech High notes that guests "remark that it looks and feels more like a high-performance workplace than a school."
The Blue Valley Schools Center for Advanced Professional Studies (BVCAPS) takes a similar approach. This district-wide program for 11th- and 12th-graders is an example of what happens when educational curricula and spaces are designed in tandem by a powerful team of community and business partners. A 2011 Edison Award winner, BVCAPS structures real-world training around four high-growth industries in Overland Park, Kansas. With lessons devised by partners such as Garmin and Cisco, BVCAPS is anything but a typical school. Its instructors are more like program managers and its curriculum is created through a patented rapid-prototyping process. Next year, it will even launch a business accelerator, prompted by four patent-seeking students.
BVCAPS left some space raw in their new building, with the notion that its purpose would be determined by the activity and interest of its students. The poise, enthusiasm, and maturity of the students testify to the benefits of an environment where students take ownership over projects and spaces.
Playing with Pixar: The art and science of spontaneity and story
Pixar, arguably the greatest digital storyteller of our time, is an easy source of school-environment inspiration: Its studio is a place where magic results from a potent blend of art and science, work and play, digital and analog. In Melena Ryzik’s tour of Pixar Studios for The New York Times, one catches a glimpse of the whimsy, transparency, recreation, and technology on campus. But listening to Steve Jobs’s philosophy behind the design reveals something deeper — that its layout was designed to foster "forced collisions of people," because "the best meetings were meetings that happened spontaneously in the hallway."
Imagine what could happen if the advanced physics student and the photography student had meaningful collisions in the average American high school. What if they did by design — if their classwork wove together diverse content and skills intentionally and elegantly? What would young people see as possible? They might come to understand that the lines between music, math, physics, and art are much blurrier than textbooks make them appear. Schools could be the breeding ground for a new millennium of Renaissance young men and women where creating something trumps memorizing it.
Ogling Google: Holistic environments and a playful culture
This $30 billion game-changing technological company realizes that valuable innovations are born from serious play, deep teamwork, and a holistically engaged (and cared for) staff. A tour of Google’s Chicago office we took with a group of educators and educational architects revealed many things, such as the power of allowing employees to control their spaces and expressing local character in a global company.
A playful strain runs through Google’s office culture. In particular, we remember "Bloxes," a type of giant interlocking cardboard boxes used to stimulate brainstorms and create ad hoc work spaces. The solo software engineer holed up in a cubicle has been replaced by an affable crew of makers of digital software and physical sculpture. In fact, Bloxes were the product of an art project by the Apple innovator Jef Raskin.
Imagine what might happen if students had this same power to edit and make their own spaces within the school environment. A tree fort in younger years might be the precursor to a dorm room venture, entrepreneurial hub, or Bloxes project room.
The work of play and the play of work
There is much to learn from our innovative corporate giants, and some schools are already taking note. But ironically, the true genius of these work spaces is how they’ve been inspired by lessons from children. (The ability of top executives to incorporate playfulness and internal strategy has even become a topic of discussion for major corporations.) Yes, school designers and leaders should make learning environments that reflect dynamic workplaces. But school leaders would be remiss if they didn’t critically re-examine (and support) the power of play and creative arts that these leaders have gleaned from them.
As we’ve learned from some of our most innovative companies, the creation of new spaces is truly an exploration of culture. What are the school environments in your community telling you? Telling your young people? It is time to re-imagine and invest in schools and spaces ripe for creativity and cross-pollination.
Steven Turckes leads Perkins+Will's global K–12 practice and is the director of the K–12 Education Group for the Chicago office. In Steven's 24-year career, he has focused on the programming, master planning, and implementation of nearly $1 billion of K–12 projects across the nation and abroad. An avid reader and strategic thinker about the evolving nature of our global society and economy, Steven often assists schools in navigating change to create flexible environments that help to prepare students for success.
Melanie Kahl is an educational design researcher in Perkins+Will's global K–12 Practice with a background in social policy and organizational development.