The purpose of today’s schools is no longer to simply provide knowledge and skills, it is also about understanding how to learn, about attitudes, behaviour and communication, and the adoption of technology. Educational thinking is changing, there is a shift from teacher-centred instruction to student-centred learning. The spaces our children learn in need to update as well, to take into account the role technology now plays in their education.
A number of UAE providers are pushing the boundaries of digital learning. Vocational colleges, in particular, are striving to stay in line with industry trends. In some facilities, students sign up to specialised online class forums with video capacity, allowing them to team up and remotely discuss self-study projects. Students can also connect with tutors face-to-face at allocated times using this service. These service providers are investing heavily in design to get the best out of new technologies and remain flexible in their use of space.
What challenges designers is the extent of codes and standards. Since these codes only refer to generic school models, it’s difficult to overcome them with a new approach. So a greater issue is how to avoid the impulse to design schools literally by existing codes and regulations. These need to be edited for the 21st century with the main criteria being design to make learning more effective.
Most opponents hate the idea of students sitting in front of computer screens; however the real benefit is more effective use of the teacher’s time in face-to-face interactions with students. Instead of teaching large groups of students of varying talents, teachers gather students into smaller groups, assessed from the work they are performing online. Educators can then quickly pick up on misunderstandings or reinforce newly acquired concepts. Teachers don’t need to teach to the mean level of the group, and will be able to connect with every student.
Schools of the future should therefore feature effective interactions of small groups of people within communal spaces. Teachers, typically isolated from their peers in traditional settings, will benefit from the camaraderie and feedback from multiple colleagues teaching in the same physical space. Students, traditionally tracked with their peers, will be exposed to a much larger social group and multiple instructors.
Fuelled by the digital revolution, it can be foreseen that ‘maker spaces’ will become a common sight in all schools; even becoming part of every classroom. Similar to the computer labs of the early 2000s, these spaces will first arrive in schools as a single shared resource, eventually becoming intrinsic in schools. Digital manufacturing devices like 3D-printers and laser cutters will be everywhere. The focus will move from the cost of these tools to the process of learning.
The introduction of virtual reality and interactive spaces will lead to white space design where the environment will be defined by the user.
Spaces should be arranged so that students are active participants in learning, not passive recipients of teachers’ knowledge. Whereas the traditional lecture hall connotes hierarchy, placing desks in a circle suggests students should be learning to debate and become decision makers. Within the circle, desks can also be clustered in small groups to encourage collaboration.
As schools are shifting to accommodate 21st-century needs, there is a discrepancy that exists between the learning methods, the teaching methods, and the design of the spaces to support them. It is the responsibility of designers and architects to train teachers on how to use these spaces.
If teachers do not know how to use these spaces, the design becomes a hindrance to them and students, affecting their teaching and learning, which previously led to the collapse of the open plan school system in the 1960s – 1970s.
Schools in the UAE often boast incredible campuses designed with all sorts of new offers to attract the fee-paying public.Education is big business. A report by the International School Consultancy Group last year said that US$2.5bn (Dh9.2bn) a year was generated in tuition fees in the UAE. The challenge is to translate these facilities into results so that schools do not lose sight of their primary goal — education.
Although historically, a school’s uniqueness in this region may have been enough to attract the fee-paying public, it’s not the glamorous lobby or the sparkling facilities that keep bringing the students in, it’s the continuous improvement in teaching method abilities and most of all, results.
For the moment, the schools of tomorrow are being built today, but were designed at least three years ago. To be ready for teaching and learning in the future, we must try to close this gap. To have any chance at educating the next generation well, we need to design schools faster, smarter and with a collaborative approach and ensure they are capable of supporting continuous advancements in teaching and technology.