When Design and Education Collide

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By Katie la Kapro / Published by Katie la Kapro
What role does design play in education around the world? It's larger than you might think.

A list of the most innovative schools in the world was recently published by Business Insider. The schools range from kindergartens in Amsterdam to high schools in Peru, all with unique educational philosophies and students whose classroom performances prove it’s all worthwhile. 

 One thing all these schools have in common? Amazing design. From modular, movable classrooms to walls students can write on, none of these innovative schools overlooked the importance of creative design in their plans. The creativity imbued in their classrooms from the earliest planning stages has a direct impact on the way they learn and grow.

 As the first generations of students graduate from these schools and move on to careers in technology, community building, and all-around world improving, the value of a creative, thoughtful space is made abundantly clear. Let’s take a closer look at the role of design in two of the world’s most innovative schools. 

 The Peruvian schools built by a design firm 

 You’ve probably heard of the design firm IDEO, famous for designing Apple’s first computer mouse and for exploring how technology, design, and social change intersect. But did you know that they also played an integral role in the Peruvian education system? 

 In 2011, Peruvian billionaire Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor hired the firm to create a network of low-cost private schools to help combat Peru’s ever-falling educational standards. The end result is the Innova School network, over 23 schools serving 13,500 students. According to the New York Times, in 2013 61 percent of second graders tested as proficient in math. That’s pretty outstanding compared to the 17 percent national average. 

 The work of the design firm can be seen in the smart design of the schools themselves. Each classroom is equipped with sliding walls so that rooms can be divided into smaller or larger spaces, depending on the needs of the students and the kind of instruction they’ll be receiving any given day. This simple design element allows teachers to work more closely with a small group of students during intensive learning periods, and to supervise a much larger group when they’re focused on independent work.  

The spatial flexibility allows teachers to focus on one instruction when its most valuable, giving students the kind of attention that encourages personal growth and inspires socially-enriching career paths that form the leaders of tomorrow. These are the kids who are most likely to grow up and understand the value of community and human connection, to become community counselors, and help keep our little humanity boat afloat as we navigate into the future. On the flip side, when students really just need to focus and be in their own heads, the teacher can open up the classroom and take a step back, giving them each room to grow and explore their minds on their own. 

 The school for building community in Cambodia 

The Sra Pou Vocational School in Sra Pou village, Cambodia, was designed by Finnish architecture firm Rudanko + Kankkunen. It’s an all-ages school built for community members, by community members, to be a place where people can learn to build their own businesses and support their families by learning how to price and market homemade goods. 

 The building’s open floor plan and colorful window motif make it an inviting gathering place for the whole village. When classes aren’t being held, the building is often used as a community meeting center and town hall space to discuss political issues. 

 By involving every member of the community in the building of the school and its continuing education philosophy, village members not only get to learn skills that will help them escape unrewarding, low-paying jobs, but simply by nature of their involvement in the program they’re able to pass those valuable lessons onto the next generation. Once members of a family are able to support themselves in a meaningful way, they are intrinsically able to be more generous with others in their community. 

Buildings like the Sra Pou Vocational School are important because they invite people from all walks of of life to learn and grow. As an extension of that, both the space and the community are enriched. During the construction of the school, architects enlisted the help of local residents in order to be sure the building met the needs of the community. In the process, many locals picked up a few pointers on how to build sustainable homes of their own in a similar style. 

 The natural rhythm of give and take, of teaching and learning, is what makes these schools so great. Designers and architects have a lot to offer the world, but when a designer takes on the challenge of building an entire educational structure, it becomes abundantly clear that the world has much more to give that it will ever take. 

Photo: The sculpture "Idiom" in Prague, also known as the "Book Tunnel"  by artist Matej Kren