We’d all love a crystal ball that predicts the future job landscape. Sadly, that’s not possible. But there are actions we can take to help students capture the employment opportunities offered by this future. Dr Anne Kovachevich, who leads our Foresight and Innovation team in Australasia, thinks one key is to build physical spaces that provide adaptive learning environments for new skills and critical thinking. In the next few decades, our young people will need to respond to big, complicated, global issues no matter which field they choose, and therefore the environments they learn in, need to change as well.
Last year, we started a project to re-imagine the future of schools. We began by studying the physical spaces of primary and secondary schools – classrooms, auditoriums, libraries and gyms. It wasn’t long before we realised we needed to broaden our focus to include other interrelated factors such as community connectedness and school learning models. Schools are one place where focusing on the building and campus alone doesn’t actually support what the kids and teachers need to develop their knowledge and skills.
“No one theme or topic could exist without the other,” says Anne. Since the skills a child needs to learn are directly informed by the shifting needs of society, schools must be seen as an extension of the communities in which they are built.
Focusing only on the physical building, and therefore missing its connection to the community and learning model is an easy trap to fall into when trying to plan a new facility in a school or campus.
There is no simple, static list of skills to prepare our children for a changing world, but we can prepare them to adapt to anything. This involves shaping curricula to focus on more adaptive skills like intuition, empathy, innovation and creativity. Some suggest that traditional standardised methods of learning and testing—which are worked on independently and reward students for providing correct answers—can impede growth in these adaptive capabilities. A more future-focused physical learning environment might instead focus on getting kids together to solve problems, and understanding the tools, technologies, and resources needed to get them there.
This approach to learning will change the way classrooms operate. In one room, a flock of energetic 8-year-olds might meet local business people and other members of the community. In the next, a dozen self-directed 10-year-olds might work in a maker space type set-up, solving problems using open-source code libraries and increasingly-cheaper technology such as 3D printers.
This learning doesn’t have to be limited to the school grounds, and doesn't have to take one form. We’re beginning to design for learning that happens at all times of the day in all different locations, from classrooms to community gardens. Schools can take a range of physical forms, from high rise structures in city centres to smaller buildings in residential or regional areas. Teaching environments can be highly digitised or low tech.
So how do we build the best classroom and campus to support these expected changes in teaching style and location? We can start by thinking of the building as a teacher itself. The building could be designed to marry internal and external environments to highlight sustainable practice and increase the natural light and fresh air inside. Kids can learn through experience how buildings can perform in different weather and get re-acquainted with the idea that inside spaces don’t always have to be 18 to 22 degrees.
We could also design for specific needs of each age group. Not only do we each learn differently, we also tend to require different learning environments at different ages. Children in primary school have different acoustic needs to adult learners and do better with spaces that enable concentration. As we start to see more open plan vertical schools to meet demand in our rapidly growing cities, we’ll need to provide quiet spaces with low reverberations.
A more adaptive approach to learning will also require the environments themselves to be more flexible. The classroom of tomorrow must be able to evolve based on individual student needs as well as curricula change as technology evolves over time. This can be as simple as choosing a fit out with modular units and furniture. The modern classroom should be multi-functional, where the wider community can gather to access technology and working space after hours. With laptops and e-learning we’re also beginning to see the decentralisation of learning. This will only continue, as the concept of a 'classroom' becomes increasingly portable. This model may improve access for regional communities, disadvantaged communities or even students who may like to re-watch lessons to better understand the topic.
Given the effect school has on our youngest citizens, by reimagining classrooms and campuses we aren’t simply building a more resilient workforce. We’re building more resilient communities of life-long learners as well.
“Schools are about learning to learn, not just for one future, but for multiple futures at different times of life,” says Anne.
To learn more about the Future of School, you can download the full report, authored by Arup Foresight here.
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