The Third Teacher

I had a summer reading assignment. And it was quite good, so I thought I’d share it with you all. A-train, this one is for you for sure. Actually, I would really recommend it across the board for everyone to read. Anyone who has a kid, knows someone who has a kid, is thinking of having a kid, has grandkids, works with kids, or just yells at kids to get off the lawn, can draw something from this book. This book is The Third Teacher.

The Third Teacher is a collaborative project by designers and educators to discuss, highlight issues, and propose solutions for the physical space we call a school. Through out the book are principles of school design, thinking points for the space we teach in and the space we learn in. This isn’t just for new schools and design from scratch, although the numbers support that building a school that is, say, energy efficient and accessible for the disabled, costs far less than having to upgrade a school years later, and benefits come in much sooner when it has an integrated design.

The project really does a lot to raise the question if students can learn and thrive in our schools as physical places, with what is typical and provided. In North America and Europe, that means schools typically built over 50 years ago, and on a design from over 100 years ago, the “cells and bells” style. But is this style good or effective? The answer is very simple: not anymore.

To elaborate slightly, not since the Victorian era, when the goal of free public education was to produce a conformed semi-educated workforce that could follow the directions of white-collared superiors. We’re teaching kids thinking skills for a growing force of creative jobs and full participation in society. The ability to express ideas, work with others, listen, use and process a variety of media and tools, and be adaptive for a world that is constantly in creation is far more important than sitting in rows, rewarding the “head of the class,” and marginal but stringent focus on the three “r”s. Screw “back to basics,” that’s not the purpose of our educational system anymore, but we’re still using the same materials, formulas, and, of course, spaces.

The Third Teacher is a project, not just one person’s personal viewpoint, and it shows in the book, which has short interviews with a variety of people in both the fields of education and design, from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, Italy, and the Nordic Countries. As part of the project, they turned to students at schools and taught them the language of design and let them express their needs at school – and whether or not those needs are being met – and design their ideal learning environments. If you’re learning about students, you should learn from the source, a source who is often not considered a source or given a voice. I remember feeling disenfranchised in school, so this is a wonderful part of the project. And, of course, what they learned is phenomenal. Even more inspiring are the examples of real schools that put the ideas of their students and faculty into their site and how they’ve turned around the learning environment, effecting measurable positive changes in the school and community.

The book has a very easy format to follow: There are several chapters on different sub-topics, like physical needs of students, green spaces, or technology. Each begins with a spread of facts that are sometimes surprising, sometimes heartrending, sometimes staggering, and usually enlightening into that topic. Then while each right hand page has one of the 79 points, the left hand pages have interviews from known and often familiar experts, diagrams, photos from schools, testimonials from children or educators, or real life stories and struggles. At the end of each is a vignette on “What We Learned” from children at the students they worked with in North America or Europe. It is an easy to follow book, an easy to read book for educators and non-educators, and by the time you finish the last chapter, an inspiring book that gives new lenses to see your own experiences through.

You just start to see it. Here’s an example from the book itself, to give you an idea of what it’s about: I found that one school in the last chapter was being praised for it’s open, student designed classroom and integration with technology, but that the tables (round things that they hoped several kids would sit around) were woefully too small to put two MacBooks on – the photo had two kids who were trying to collaborate at a table but, sitting opposed, could not open their laptops up all the way. One was visibly hunched over because the table was also too short for his body. When we should have materials and furniture that fit their purpose, allow for multiple or flexible usage, and can be adjusted to fit the growing student, that table was woefully inaccurate. And that was at a school with good design.

Okay, so why did I have this book as summer reading? Our school is working on a new master plan and we secured an extended lease for our site. So this offers an opportunity to think about what we want students and teachers to be able to do, the environment we want to have, and then by extension, what the school should be like so that form actually does follow function. Our form definitely does not follow what we want to do.

Many of us are torn between feeling a need to raze the entire school and figuring out what to do with what we’ve been given: three wings of late 1950’s cells with worn heating systems and mismatched tile but an all new paint scheme and a new (decade old) gym (sweet) and arts and sciences building (has some issues). We’re on a lease, and we don’t own it, so how much can we do to it? Can we at least rip out our systems, install windows into the hallways, open up walls, add skylights, and get new furniture? What can we do, we ask, because our minds and hearts are filled to the brim with a desire to change things fundamentally instead of our current add-on process. And not just the space, but what curriculum we offer and what opportunities students have to do things, like the disuse of our kitchen when we grow an epic garden or lack of any tools or space or time to build things.

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~ by glasslajora on September 7, 2012.

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