School Redesign: Discussion & Assembly

There are some people who think that we’re going to be able to scrap schools as we do them now, and do them anew.  That’s not going to happen.  Every Monday for the next few weeks, I’m going to be taking a look at the list I generated in this post, about how to renovate a school’s physical spaces to take on the challenges of 21st century learning. Last week I examined the idea of performance and practice in the redesigned curriculum, so this week I’m going to look at how we get to the point of performance and presentation: discussion, research, and assembly. 

  • Discussion groups

One of the things that we should expect of teachers is to be facilitators of conversations.  Students learn best in environments where they get to have a voice, and add their ideas and opinions to the communication.  Some of these discussions in new schools should be book groups — “come to Room 209 today for a round-table talk on The Killer Angels” while others could be discussions of films about to be screened or recently screened in the theaters, or discussions of performances of music, or science experiments. The whole idea is to create spaces where people are going to communicate, practice communicating, and engage with others.

Discussions and conversations don’t happen when everyone is sitting in the same kind of chair.  They happen when there are stools, couches, comfortable floors, chairs, sofas, arm chairs, wingchairs, shaker chairs, Chippendale chairs. There need to be coffee tables, dinner tables, side tables, end tables and more.  

  • Research space

Conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Students are also going to need spaces for research, both in groups and alone. Some of this space will be traditional library areas, like reading rooms and stacks for the storage of hardcopy materials.  Some will be spaces with large screens, for reading and manipulating multiple bits of information and framing topics in both big-picture and little-detail ways. Maybe you could even teach math in the ways recommended in  A Mathematician’s Lament (and a link to the book on

Some students with advanced projects are going to need study carrels that they can make their own.  I had one writing my graduate thesis, and found that having a small room to retreat to, to leave Post-It® Notes on the wall, and my books open to the right pages, was really helpful.  Students in 8-12 may have need of such spaces of their own.  Maybe we should think about providing some.

  • Social space (conversation, snack bar, etc.)

Conversation and research doesn’t just happen in formal settings.  Schools are going to need informal settings too.  The brain needs a rest, to think about other kinds of problems, to work through other kinds of issues, and to refuel.  Any new school should have spaces for eating and talking where conversations can take place in  a leisurely way.  

Think about the last time you had a good idea in a restaurant.  In a café.  In a bar (though I’m not suggesting alcoholizing our schools!).  In a snack bar.  In line at an ice cream stand.  These ventures should also be student-run, so that students get experience being waiters, cooks, and food service managers.  It’s real work; why shouldn’t they have practice at the managing of it, as well as the low-end service jobs they usually get outside of school? Why shouldn’t it be allowed for them to join the conversations that occur in their spaces?

  • Project assembly

Most schools have an art room.  This new kind of school will need several. There need to be places for students to assemble the physical materials of their projects — poster boards and advertisements and science projects and wooden screens for their performances, digital labs and studio space for movie making, metal shops for fabricating props and tools.  Maybe they’ll even have a lab for 3-d printers.  They need painting studios, drawing studios, and yes, even musical composition labs.

  • Galleries

Not every project is going to end with a performance or a presentation.  Many are going to end with a display, or a piece of art, or a film.  These pieces are going to need gallery space — places where the work can be set up, showed, displayed, screened, viewed, tested, critiqued, examined, re-examined, and inspire others.  This is normal, and it should be built into the experience of everyone who is in school — put together a gallery show, and show us what you’ve got.

So let’s consider.  Again, we’re looking at a school design that calls for presentation, conversation, and discussion.  The curriculum is explicitly directed at learning collaboration in multiple environments, working with a range of materials and sources, and doing research alone or in groups.  A radically different idea to how we do school now.

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