Classrooms of tomorrow

Even as education evolves to meet 21st century needs, strong design elements like flexibility, movement and transparency are helping define the learning spaces of tomorrow

June 01, 2018 06:00 pm | Updated 06:52 pm IST

The last few years have seen classrooms around the world aspiring to more — shedding walls, gaining mobility, going smart and getting ambitious with its design. We have heard of Finland schools breaking down barriers, between spaces, subjects and ages; of US bloggers Cult of Pedagogy who started a conversation on flexible seating and learning in classrooms; and of Japanese schools winning awards for designing ‘continuous spaces’ for kids to run free. We are no strangers to these concepts in India — our own Santiniketans and KFI schools, with classes held under peepal trees, being a case in point — but of late, there has been a more concerted drive towards future-looking spaces. In Chennai, the Riverbend School (set to open in 2020) is rethinking curricula and traditional architecture, designing a campus that resembles a village, encouraging dynamic learning and prioritising ‘happiness’. High in the mountains, Ladakhi engineer and education reformist, Sonam Wangchuk (also known as the man who inspired Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots ), is laying the foundation for the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, designed to facilitate real-life skills.

It is high time these concepts find acceptance, says New York-based Prakash Nair. The architect and founding president of Fielding Nair International, an award-winning school planning and design firm with consultations in over 47 countries (including many in India, like the American School of Bombay), believes the whole purpose of school is questionable in today’s information age. “The traditional model was designed for the industrial age, a teacher-driven pedagogy encouraging obedience, following rules, being good at repetitive tasks — skills valuable in a factory,” he says. “Why do you need to go to school when all the information is online, from worldwide experts? The need now is for inter-disciplinary work, focussing on 21st century skills like cognitive flexibility, creativity, and emotional intelligence — and to give kids the freedom to do different things, in different ways, at different times.”

While education experts say the need of the hour is a complete overhaul of the system, one of the more immediate solutions is building a certain amount of agility into physical spaces, keeping in mind the school’s principles and goals, projects the teachers want to do, and the mindset they want to instil in students. “Even just breaking down the walls of two classrooms and helping teachers work together, encouraging students in inter-disciplinary work, allows this,” adds Nair. Here are a few new projects that are trying this out in real-time, incorporating flexibility, transparency and an organic design. If you come across similar examples, do write in to

International Village School, Chennai

The setting is idyllic: 1.3 acres abutting the Sholinganallur bird sanctuary. And the building — which maps the path of the sun to ensure natural light and energy efficiency — matches up. Founder Chairman Rajesh Shankar says that following the International Baccalaureate, IGCSE and Reggio Emilia approach give the school flexibility, which they have capitalised on in their spaces. “We have open ateliers where the environment is changed each day for each class, with movable walls and mats. And bleacher seating encourages children to sit and observe what other kids are being taught.” While they do have classrooms, each ‘smart’ room comes with large glass doors on two sides, and a projection surface on the third (that mirrors the teacher’s iPad) to allow free movement. The school is designed with acoustics in mind, as one of the criticisms of flexible educational spaces is that they are too noisy. “We’ve worked with Bose for acoustic modelling, and incorporated sound-absorbing vinyl floors and a cork-like material on the walls that also doubles up as pin-up boards,” he says.

To reflect the multidisciplinary reality of today, they have also introduced an umbrella concept — both in education and the physical space. “For example, we are integrating computer science, robotics, astronomy, photography, etc, into our Department of Design Thinking. Performing arts will include theatre, vocal and instrumental music, dance, public speaking and etiquette,” says Shankar. Redundant spaces like the assembly area and the landscaped terrace with tiered seating are being put to use as an indoor games area, and for movie screenings and astronomy class. “We never want children to feel boxed in. So our bathrooms are open-to-sky, have no doors, and have a garden within!” Opening this August. Details:

In India, it is hard to completely abandon classrooms and curricula because the government mandates board exams. Another challenge is finding teachers who can implement a future-looking vision. Often, despite design changes, classrooms feel traditional because teachers are not able to fully understand how to implement something different from what they have been exposed to - Maya Thiagarajan, Educator

Smrti Academy, Bengaluru

Coming up on 3.4 acres off Sarjapur Road, Smrti Academy had to put aside blueprints for an open plan school (thanks to legalities), but made up by embracing ‘open architecture’, says founder V Ravichandran. “The school is built like a chakravyuh, following vastu shastra. The classrooms, with French windows on either side to help with light and ease of movement, are built around a central courtyard, ensuring line of sight no matter where you are,” he says. The 10,000 sq ft courtyard, which goes through all four floors, also have several green spaces, each designed differently — some theatre-style, some with modular furniture, and others with stepped seating — to encourage its use as extended classrooms. “Our art spaces have glass walls to encourage kids to scribble on them and stick things, and I’m also creating walls you can write on, so there is constant ideation and creativity.” The library will also get a tunnel slide (discussions are on) — accessible from all floors — to add to its learning kiosks, chowkis and sofas. The CBSE school will open next June. Details:

KC High, Chennai

The new campus of Kids Central, set to open on June 22 in Navalur, calls to mind a hive — a hexagon built around a kund or agora. “The [IGCSE board] school is designed for fluidity and movement, encouraging kids to move in and out of classrooms. The purpose was also to deconstruct the conventional model of classrooms — as places where children sit in rows and listen to the teacher — and create more organic spaces,” explains Michael Purcell, Head of School. “The hexagon leans more towards a circle than a square or rectangle, encouraging teachers and students to rearrange furniture, work in groups (or independently), and get more wall space to do things.” As more peer-to-peer learning is facilitated when there is movement, the school’s design also includes collaborative spaces and nooks for smaller groups to work together or just find some private time. “We have specific purpose-built art areas — dance, music, and even a pottery room that looks like a design lab — organised around an open circle under a dome. The square footage dedicated to these spaces is quite substantial, an indication of the understanding that creativity in the arts is very much a 21st century skill,” he adds. Details:

Focus School Noor Khan Bazar, Hyderabad

We are at an earlier stage in education as a system. The number of experiments happening with physical spaces is growing faster than the investment into getting teachers to understand the concept behind the space and how to use it perceptively - Ramya Venkataraman, Founder & CEO, Centre for Teacher Accreditation

In Hyderabad, Focus School is overcoming space challenges to give children from the Old City access to good education. “Our main campus is behind the Salar Jung Museum. This year, a new one will open at Noor Khan Bazar,” says principal Minhaj Arastu. The low-cost IB school is built in just over 7,500 sq ft, but has utilised the space ingeniously. A cellar houses the art, music and computer labs (with two-foot picture windows letting light in), glass-fronted corridors give a sense of space and cuts down noise, a multi-purpose space on the top floor uses movable wooden partitions to create classrooms and play spaces, and the roof turns into a playground with terrace football and more. “Our furniture is modular and mobile. We have in-class libraries, with sofas and chattais for comfort,” says Arastu, adding that a teachers internship programme also helps keep the cost down. Details:

Innovatus Academy, Mumbai

The under-construction Innovatus Academy is inspired by the Finnish education system (personalisation, broad-based curriculum and innovation). The school in Kurla will be open plan, doing away with classrooms for dedicated learning spaces such as language and maths labs, science exploration areas and maker spaces. “Our design replicates the work place of the future where key skills will be collaboration, communication and critical thinking,” says founder Monica Mehta. Each area is customisable, with collapsible/movable walls to allow for flexibility in teaching, and modular furniture to encourage different seating and collaborations. “There is innovative thinking applied everywhere. [For younger students], our staircases can be used to teach numbers; we have niches, reading corners and swing-like chairs throughout the school; and glass-walled ‘flex rooms’ for kids to retreat to.” With an IB curriculum framework, the school is set to open in August 2020.

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