Future-Proofing Schools

Using New Ideas, Technology and Building Methods to Train the Next Generation

Futurism is a tricky subject. Futurists can analyze demographic and technological trends, but the harsh truth remains that it is simply not possible to know how our society will look ten, fifteen, or twenty years in the future.

In education, we increasingly face the task of building schools capable of withstanding these changes to provide students with the skills they will need. By future-proofing schools, we can ensure an educated and reliable workforce in the coming generations. We can accomplish this by changing educational methodology, investing in new technology and building leaner, more multipurpose school facilities.

Future-proofing schools raises the obvious question: what comprises a good education? Educational institutions today are gradually realizing that the scramble for high test scores does not produce good students. Fluent understanding of concrete facts and concepts is a necessary part of education, but using logic to understand those facts is of even greater importance. Communication, collaboration, and applying critical thinking to changing circumstances may not be quantifiable, but these are lifelong skills used daily in business.

A 2017 survey of 1,400 business owners by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BCA) found that 55 percent of those stated that recruiting skilled employees is key. That number rose to 82 percent among those who led businesses with twenty or fewer employees.

A collaborative approach to education also significantly increases students’ social skills, a necessary thing for functioning in a workplace environment. While technology may raise the alluring prospect of distance learning from students’ homes, the social benefits of an in-school education are necessary for proper childhood development.

“Tell me, and I forget; teach me, and I remember; involve me, and I learn.” – The quote has relatively recently been misattributed to Benjamin Franklin, although the sentiment originated with third-century BCE Chinese philosopher Xunzi (Xun Kuang), who said, “Having seen it is not as good as knowing it. Knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.” Either way, the practice of learning by doing has been part of educational philosophy in North America since the 1960s, and more educators are recognizing its effectiveness.

A rising number of schools are also using project-based learning (PBT) as a substitute for tests. This approach asks students to apply knowledge in a specific, practical application, usually in a collaborative environment. These skills will be highly useful in a workplace setting, far more so than test preparation and execution.

For example, students at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Fargo, North Dakota were studying local history. Instead of taking a test on the subject, they visited historic sites in the area, interviewed locals, and presented their findings in groups to their peers. This shows a major shift away from previous thinking, which viewed students working together as less valuable work.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water… become like water, my friend.” The visionary martial artist, actor, and philosopher Bruce Lee, when speaking on his own martial art system, Jeet Kune Do, emphasized that by not strictly adhering to any established forms but rather adapting to an opponent, one would be ready to deal with changes. Education must also be adaptable if it hopes to survive increasingly rapidly changing trends.

St. Mary’s Consolidated High School, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, provides a prime example of this. Completed on a standard provincial education ministry budget, the school’s most revolutionary feature is its wide learning commons area. As the name implies, the learning commons provides a wide, open space that encourages student interaction and collaboration, as well as student-teacher interaction, outside formal class time. This one-on-one time can allow both students and teachers unfettered communication, providing a closer bond and enhancing students’ approach to education. The learning commons also links the cafeteria and library, providing more efficient use of space.

Attempting to extrapolate technological trends from current data is a risky and potentially costly proposition, yet some businesses are already engaged in providing the learning tools to create this learning environment. The Israeli company Kramer Electronics has created innovative new digital classrooms, with an equipment line capable of producing a wide variety of learning environments.

Rather than supplanting a physical classroom with digital distance learning, these tools allow students to connect any wireless device to a central learning hub, providing unprecedented collaboration and accessibility. Kramer’s technology provides not a solution but a tool, applicable in either a collaborative classroom or a lecture environment.

On a larger scale, BlinkLearning provides textbooks and lessons to over 1.5 million students in forty-five countries across the globe. Using these tools, teachers can work with publishers to obtain resources for tailor-made lessons, rather than just the archaic concept of ‘following the textbook.’ BlinkLearning’s digital textbooks are available from pre-primary to university level and beyond, from such publishers as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Cambridge University Press.

These companies are but two of those businesses engaged in building the future of education. Rather than taking on a single trend, these businesses are ensuring long-term survival by making their technology adjustable to any classroom environment. As future students become all the more technologically-literate, introducing this technology at an earlier age will also increase their abilities to master new skills in a workplace environment. These technologies are helping create a new hybrid learning space, augmenting physical lectures and discussions with digital tools.

But these technologies are useless without a classroom in which to use them. School overcrowding is and has been a frustrating and tragic issue in the United States, Canada, and other countries. In 2019, in my home city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Park West Elementary School had 873 students enrolled and a capacity of 590. Six portable buildings have been constructed over the years to accommodate this enrolment balloon, but these classrooms are not designed for long-term use. As state and provincial governments struggle under the combined burden of rising healthcare costs and an ageing population, the issue will put a growing strain on government resources.

The private sector is already stepping up to compensate. In Australia, the design firm NBRS Architecture and its partners are creating portable, modular classroom buildings. Specializing in prefabricated buildings, NBRS’s ‘ModuPods’ have up to four detachable modules connected to a central hub, providing between 25,000 and 100,000 square feet. Budget estimates range from $1 to $5 million Australian dollars or between $900,000 and $4.5 million Canadian dollars. Several schools have already been built in New South Wales, with others in various stages in construction.

This modular architecture has an unprecedented degree of possibilities. One module can be placed in a rural area, with the option of adding more as the region grows. The modules contain lightweight, sustainable building materials, with measures such as solar panels and green insulation incorporated in the design. It is admittedly unclear how the modules would operate in Canada’s colder climate; however, the possibilities offered by such buildings for future school growth are intriguing.

But while these modules do give more cost-effective solutions, regional educational departments always seem to find themselves at their budgetary limits. Public schools’ overcrowding may even be responsible for a recent jump in private school enrolment. In British Columbia, for example, eighty thousand students or thirteen percent of the student population attended private schools in 2016, according to BC’s Federation of Independent School Associations.

The time may be ripe for new private schools funded by venture capital, with the freedom to test next-generation educational equipment. These schools could provide an atmosphere of pure innovation, field-testing new educational technology and practices to foster new learning styles.

As the pace of technological change accelerates, the prospect of future-proofing schools and education appears increasingly daunting, but more schools and educators are implementing more collaborative learning practices, flexible technology, and modular school buildings. This and adaptability, adequately applied, can ensure the forthcoming workers have the skills to succeed in the twenty-first century.

July 5, 2020, 6:57 PM EDT