School Design: Ask the Students

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we interact with students during the design process. As one of our teams was gearing up for a design session with middle schoolers last week, several links to other blog posts came across my Twitter feed on this topic.

The executive summary of this thinking: we designers, no matter how well intentioned, simply don’t spend enough time in schools listening to students.

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Students explore ideas at Alderwood Middle School

As architects, we are sometimes frustrated when a workshop for a group of teachers we’re working with is poorly attended – or there’s a lack of engagement in the work we’re doing for them, despite (in our humble opinions) the fantastic collaborative process we’ve put in place.

But, here’s the thing: it’s entirely understandable. THEY have full time jobs that can be physically and emotionally draining. What seems like an amazing opportunity to tap into their creative side and have a real impact on the future of their schools can be, even for the most energetic and dedicated teacher, the last straw that breaks the back of their daily camel.

The shoe is on the other foot when it comes to participating in the daily lives of the schools we design for. Despite OUR best intentions, we often have trouble carving out the necessary time to really immerse ourselves in these schools from the students’ perspective.

Sure, I’ve spent entire days in schools observing and absorbing, I’ve been to their Spring Carnivals and their fall band concerts (even got to witness my first middle school dance since, well, middle school… but that’s an entirely different angst-ridden topic), I’ve eaten my fair share of cafeteria food (some, remarkably good), I’ve arrived early and stayed late to understand the flow of traffic and the additional services the schools provide; but still, when it comes right down to it, I’m a short-term outsider looking in. An outsider always looking for new ways to understand schools from other perspectives.

That’s why two recent blog posts have been of particular interest to me.  The first, by Alex Hernandez at edSurge challenges us all to “Be subversive; Listen to Students”. He references a blog post by Alexis Wiggins, a teacher moving into a new role, as she shadows a student for an entire day. “Want to design better schools? Force yourself to sit in a classroom and see what it is actually like to be a student”, she writes, and then provides some interesting take-aways for thought HERE
The second, from The Guardian, is a series called The School I’d Like that resulted in the creation of a Children’s Manifesto. This is a great (even inspiring) read for anyone searching out what students believe are important for their own learning. The overarching principle, stated best by a child: we should listen to them because “our brains are new”.

Yes. We all need to find the time to simply Listen. What do you hear students saying when they talk about their schools?

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