According to school architect and author of The Third Teacher, Trung Le, over 35% of the square footage of the average school are in use less than 5% of the day.
The reason for this is that the institutional design that schools most resemble are prisons.
Think about it — we move kids from cell to cell, we monitor their coming and going whenever they leave their cells at anything but the designated time, often giving them a pass so that other adults can know immediately that the student is allowed in the common space, and many principals are taught that the secret of success as an administrator is to clear the hallways as soon as the bell rings at the start of class, and most schools give three or four minutes to get from class to class, no matter how big the campus is or how crowded the hallways get at the change of classes.
And we wonder why kids feel like school feel like prison.
If we want kids to feel that schools are more human places, let’s start by making every space a learning space, every space a social space. Let’s free the hallways. It makes sense from a practical point, if nothing else. Authentic learning tends to require more square footage than traditional schooling. When a class of 30 high school students start collaborating, the average classroom can get loud quickly. Letting a few groups work in the hallways is not only a way of letting students own where and how they learn, it also just makes learning easier by simply giving kids more room to work.
But it makes sense from a philosophical sense as well. We can shift our thinking from When kids are not herded from classes to class with three minutes but are given a little more time to transition, they feel more valued. When kids do not view learning as tethered only to a specific classroom space, they are more likely to see school as a continuum of social learning that is an intrinsic part of their lives, not just something that is done to them.
And yes, there will be times when the kids get louder than we want them to. And yes, this will make it easier for some students to check out of the learning when they want to. And yes, it will mean that “classroom management” can be a little harder when our classrooms does not end at the door of the physical class space. These are some of the negative consequences of what can be a very good idea. And while we need to do things to mitigate those issues, they will never go away. The question we need to ask ourselves is always this:
Is it better to deal with the issues that arise from allowing students more ownership over where and how they learn than dealing with the issues that arise from making sure students know that the adults tell them where and when to be at all times?
If the answer is yes, then schools need to prepare for a major culture shift.
But let’s be clear — this is hard.
This does challenge many of the assumptions we have made about school and how schools function as organizations, and this is a very difficult challenge for many educators to make. Thinking through the questions, challenges, issues and consequences – both positive and negative – of a shift like this requires honoring the concerns of everyone involved.
- What happens when we put tables and chairs along the halls and make it space that kids can use?
- What happens when students do not have to stay only in the cafeteria to eat lunch?
- What happens when we create spaces that are shared between teachers and students?
- What are the ways we can create third spaces for kids to be that are lightly supervised with a lot of space for student ownership over community standards of behavior?
- How can the community keep the best goals of this shift in mind, even when there are frustrations with the shift?
- How do we balance what can be competing needs of teachers and students in the use of physical space?
Autonomy and agency can be really hard, because people make bad decisions from time to time — not just kids, but all of us. And this is not about giving total autonomy to students — everyone has a responsibility to each other to be responsible to the learning process, especially if much of the learning is collaborative. It is about collaborative agency, where decisions can be made together. And when we give kids more agency over how they use the space, we challenge many of the assumptions we make about school. That’s not easy, but the rewards can be one more powerful way we move from compulsory schooling to a more democratic and empowering education. Schools are not prisons, and every step we move away from that model of institutional design, the better.