Head meets heart in Canada’s newest school designs
It was difficult for Mehley Macdonald to keep her feelings to herself during her first visit to the Seven Stones Community School construction site. Although it would be months before the new building, located in North Central Regina, would be completed, Mehley and her new colleagues were already excited by the sense of possibility that was emerging right before their eyes.
Even today, a year and a half later, there is a catch in her voice as Mehley remembers when everyone donned hard hats and walked into what would become her shared Kindergarten space.
The first thing I saw were the windows,” she recalls. “They were just so big and beautiful. It was difficult for me not to start tearing up.
But this was much more than an emotional reaction to an aesthetic feature of her new classroom. The natural world is an essential learning element in Mehley’s teaching practice. While some may wonder whether large windows might become a source of distraction, she knows that increased connection between inside and outside will result in deeper learning for her students.
She also knows that research supports her belief that the presence of natural light can calm the learning climate. In her previous schools, windows had either been very small – and sometimes barred – or covered with clouded plexiglass. The realization that, at Seven Stones, her students would be able to have continual access to the outside environment was like a dream come true.
Mehley Macdonald’s reaction would certainly not be lost on Randall Fielding, Founding Chairman of Fielding Nair International (FNI), the architectural firm responsible for the design of Seven Stones Community School. Fielding’s passion for creating spaces that resonate deeply with both personalized and community-based learning is firmly rooted in memories of his own early days at school: “Kindergarten was really hard for me. I was used to spending a lot of time outside with dogs and trees—that was my curriculum.” Fielding cringes a little as he speaks to an audience of design thinkers at the 2010 Cusp Conference. “And all of a sudden I was in an environment where I was inside all day long and someone was telling me what to do every minute.”
It was Fielding’s desire to change the school experience for future generations right around the world that eventually led him to partner with visionary architect Prakash Nair. Their radical rethink of the way new schools are planned and built has given us a whole new language of school design for the 21st Century. Each of the close to thirty “Design Patterns” that make up the FNI lexicon offers a unique way of bringing a particular, research-based learning idea to life. Most FNI designs have very recognizable features: flexible learning spaces of different shapes and sizes; plenty of glass providing visual access to the outdoor environment, and to other learning spaces; large common areas creating important gathering places for staff, students and the larger community. But they are not “all the same.” An extensive consultation process preceding each build ensures that each school will be uniquely tied to the educational vision and goals held by a particular community.
Consultation before design
In fact, it is the depth and breadth of these initial consultations that form an important pillar in building consensus, excitement and commitment for each new project. As educators, parents and community members come together to share their hopes and dreams of what they want for their children in terms of learning, well-being, and connection with the world beyond school, the seeds of building the capacity necessary to bring those visions to life are actually planted.
Karen Shannon is Superintendent of School Effectiveness for the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board. Her school district is just over a year away from opening St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in Kingston, Ont., the first FNI build in Ontario. Several years ago, her District worked with FNI to develop a broad 21st century learning vision for all schools. Shannon recalls that getting agreement on a higher-level, aspirational vision was an important part of getting community support for rethinking the way the District’s physical learning spaces were designed and constituted.
“That vision of what we want for our kids resonates so well with everyone that it takes away the first and biggest cornerstone of resistance, because everyone wants higher levels of engagement, higher levels of achievement and better outcomes for students in these communities. This is something that we’re committed to achieving in all of our schools, but the St. Francis of Assisi project allowed us to take what we know and imagine how research and practice could come together to create something brand new.” And this is what lies at the heart of these new school designs. It’s no longer about creating a structure in relative isolation, hoping that teachers and students will be able to function effectively within it. Instead, the goal is to use current research to identify the specific teaching and learning practices that will support the highest aspirations we have for our children, and build a school that has the capacity to enable those practices.
Rosa Fazio speaks about it in terms of a connection between head and heart. As principal of Norma Rose Point School in Vancouver, one of four FNI-designed schools in the region, she is clear about what drives her passion for their new school.
“We don’t exist because of the building,” insists Fazio. “We exist because we believe in what research is telling us about what learners need today.”
Although Fazio was not part of the initial FNI consultations, it didn’t take her long to understand how this new building connected with her own values and beliefs, as well as the strong research base that enabled her to achieve the support of her parent community.
Designed for collaboration
The first and most fundamental Design Pattern in most FNI schools has to do with the way that learning spaces are constituted. Traditional classrooms of similar, if not identical, size are replaced with learning studios, each with different shapes and dimensions. Instead of emptying onto long narrow hallways, each group of three or four studios is part of a learning suite, and centred around a larger common area. Completing each learning suite is a collaborative meeting space for staff and one or more smaller rooms that can be used for private meetings and work with individual students.
The ability to close off individual learning studios, or open up the entire suite, enables a set of practices and opportunities that just don’t exist in traditional buildings. For many, the most compelling possibility exists in the ability to divide a rather large school population into Smaller Learning Communities of 75-100 students, three to four teachers and a number of support staff. No longer is a group of students assigned to one teacher for the entire year. Instead, all students in the community have access to the strengths, talents and interests of all of the adults in the community. In the same way, teachers get a chance to support the learning with all of the students in their community.
At Norma Rose Point, Fazio’s commitment to a sense of home is supported by the creation of several houses in groupings of one or two grade levels. Each Smaller Learning Community is comprised of about 70 students, and provides the main context for their learning work throughout the year.
The establishment of Smaller Learning Communities has not only opened up the space for collaboration among staff, but it allows for the school’s motto, “Learners at the Centre,” to come to life in some very powerful ways. Norma Rose Point teacher Karen Noel-Bentley says this re-imagined space has led teachers to change the way teaching and learning is organized. “In using the space as shared space and the rooms as breakout rooms, the students have a lot of choice not only about how they work, but where they work.”
Karen goes on to explain that, in many cases, they’re giving students a choice of which room to work in and which teacher to work with. Although challenging for some students and teachers, the goal is to underline the different types of relationships that are possible as the result of the design. No longer is this “my classroom” and “my teacher” – these are all shared resources distributed across their Learning Community.
A commitment to collaborative practices – co-planning and co-teaching – has become part of the narrative in many schools, districts and divisions across the country. In an FNI-designed school, collaboration is not just a talking point, but the foundation of everything else that occurs in the space: the inquiry-based learning, the increase in engaging project work, the development of trusting relationships among students and teachers. Yet administrators and educators understand that, despite best efforts and intentions, it is often too easy to return to a sense of isolated practice if not privacy – a default setting in many school cultures.
At Seven Stones Community School, principal Jay Fladager recognized how important it was to build the collaborative structures and dispositions among his staff in the year prior to moving into their new space. “We moved all the teacher desks into a separate room and made a collaborative space, and so built into their timetable every day was the opportunity to collaborate with each other, align their practices together, and try to reflect together on how they were trying to engage students in a different way.”
This re-imagined space has led teachers to change the way teaching and learning is organized… No longer is this “my classroom” and “my teacher.”
At Norma Rose Point, Rosa Fazio acknowledges that the amount of collaboration required by this type of design pushes many out of their comfort zone. Simply moving into what may, on the outside, seem like the “school of their dreams” does not guarantee smooth sailing every day. Her role, she says, is to provide extraordinary levels of support for her committed, passionate staff who’ve been thrown into the deep end. “Teachers want administrators to part the waters to enable them to do the job they can do.”
Teacher Suzie Polzin is honest in admitting that, although spaces like those at Norma Rose Point definitely open up possibilities and even solutions, there are newly revealed complexities that begin to emerge. One of the biggest is the sense of vulnerability that is created when personal practices suddenly become “open to the public.”
“It’s pretty easy to do what we want when we’re in our own little boxed room. But that doesn’t happen here… it can’t happen here.” She believes the key to addressing the complexities lies in the team dynamic and how much of a gap exists between where team members are on the continuum of practice. If there’s too much of a gap, then that vulnerability may become too threatening to make it work.
Flexible seating and lots of natural light are common features of new school design.
It’s a journey that superintendent Karen Shannon knows doesn’t end once people move into the new building. She is very aware that the real work will begin once staff and students finally arrive in their space. Aspirations and vision aside, Shannon recognizes that people are dealing with important questions about the new ways in which they will be asked to work and that the long-term work will be “moving through those difficult aspects of cultural change.”
While the Smaller Learning Community is essential to the new language of school design and receives much of the commentary, both positive and critical, there are other practices and possibilities enabled in these spaces. At Norma Rose Point, a commitment to a culture of caring and belonging is deepened by the ability of staff and students to move more freely around the building, expanding the network of relationships normally experienced in a more traditional setting. Open learning spaces, plenty of windows and a large entry space offer a new way of “seeing” and, while it may challenge the need of some for privacy, it also makes things visible in a way that instils a sense of shared responsibility.
At Seven Stones, the idea of community is so important that it is built into the name of the school. Jay Fladager recalls the initial community consultation around the new build. Ninety-five percent of the school’s population is Indigenous and those first conversations with the parents were steeped in a sense that school needed to be a different experience for their children than it was for them. The importance of rebuilding trust between the school and its parents was clear; there was also a strong call to expand the traditional edges of the school, making it a place that was open for more than just a few hours a day. The vision was for an inter-agency community hub – a place in which the entire community could find a place, contribute and take pride.
Gardening at Norma Rose Point School. Well-designed outdoor areas offer learning, play and gathering spaces.
As a result, the Seven Stones Community School has become a vibrant site for community involvement and engagement. Indigenous culture and history are not simply add-ons but have inspired a set of practices that are embedded into the daily life of the school. The space is an important part of that vision.
“There isn’t a day goes by that doesn’t have a different community engagement, family engagement or agency engagement,” explains Fladager. “Something is happening in this building all the time.”
For a significant and growing number of enthusiastic educators, the higher levels of engagement resulting from collaborative practices, personalized learning and inquiry-based approaches are exciting and resonate with their own beliefs about student success. At the same time, the barriers that are encountered when new pedagogies bump up against traditional school structures can be both frustrating and disappointing. The new school builds and renovations led by organizations like Fielding Nair International, however,¢
Tiered steps at Seven Stones Community School invite outdoor gatherings and performances.
Mehley Macdonald says that coming to Seven Stones Community School in Regina has made it easier for her to get back to what she really believes about learning. That’s a powerful statement, but not nearly as poignant as the thought that went through her mind when she and her colleagues first met in the large, light-filled gathering space that spans the entire length of the school:
I was just so thankful that the children would see that they were worthy of something this beautiful.
En Bref: Les obstacles qui surviennent lorsque de nouvelles pédagogies se heurtent à des structures scolaires traditionnelles peuvent engendrer tant la frustration que la déception. Mais de nouvelles constructions et rénovations d’école comme celles qui sont orchestrées par le cabinet d’architectes Fielding Nair International peuvent rehausser la capacité de nos structures physiques d’héberger adéquatement de nouvelles visions d’éducation et de permettre aux éducateurs d’enseigner selon leurs aspirations. Il ne s’agit plus de créer une structure de façon relativement isolée, en espérant que les enseignants et les élèves pourront y fonctionner efficacement. L’objectif consiste plutôt à utiliser les dernières recherches pour cerner les pratiques spécifiques d’enseignement et d’apprentissage qui appuieront nos aspirations les plus élevées pour nos enfants et pour construire une école dotée de la capacité d’appliquer ces pratiques.
Photos: courtesy of Norma Rose Point School, Fielding Nair International, and Seven Stones Community School.
First published in Education Canada, September 2016