Hi Prakash. So, what sparked your interest in school architecture?
Well, actually I was the director of operations for school construction for New York City, which was the largest school construction program in the world, that was my job. But, I realised that we were not really improving education outcomes, we were just building nice looking schools. So when I was doing the research, I realised that the schools we were building were not facilitating good education practice, so, I decided to start my own company, and to cut a long story short, it’s now 17 years later and we now have one of the most successful school planning and design firms in the world.
What are the key differences between a learning community and a classroom?
Well, the main difference is that in a classroom, it’s very hard to personalise education because you’re one teacher and a number of students - 25 students, 30 students as the case may be. You have a fixed amount of time, so, it’s very difficult to personalise it, because all children are being treated at the same time, and you can’t ignore some children and pay attention to the others. But in a learning community you have four teachers, and say 100 students, and in that model, the teacher-student ratio can vary throughout the school day, depending on what the needs are. So we’re not fixing the teacher student ratio to one to 25, it can be one to one, one to 10, one to 25 or even one to 100 if an expert lecturer comes in. So what happens is, with the same number of staff, you can deliver a truly personalised education in a learning community.
What has been one of your most memorable school transformations?
There have been many, I think some of the most memorable ones are in very impoverished communities where you see children who might otherwise not even be in school, succeed. We worked in some of the poorest communities in Canada, for example, in a community called Regina, Saskatchewan, where you’re talking about five per cent graduation rates and things like that, and now, that community has really prospered as a result of the schools that we’ve done there. There’s another one, which also happened to be in Canada, in Vancouver BC, Norma Rose Point School, which truly adopted this new model. It’s also a government school, and they’re doing exceptionally well, as well.
How do you remember your own classroom when you were a student?
Well, it was one of the reasons I realised the model doesn’t work, because it was very much a mass production model, and students really did not have much voice in education, you were just told what to do. And it’s not the best preparation for life. So in my case, I actually dropped out of school for a whole year, and ended up just learning on my own, and passing exams. But I literally didn’t attend school from the last year, simply because it just was too much.
You talk about education needing to change, not just the physical space. If you were going to renovate school education, where would you start?
I think the main thing is that the purpose of school always was the place where you learned. Now learning has escaped the boundaries of the school building, learning is everywhere, so, the school’s function has changed from the place where you came to learn stuff, to a place where you come to develop skills that you can use. Because stuff, you can get anywhere. You can get it on your smartphone. So it’s no longer about information, it’s about the things you have to do, for example, creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration, working with your peers, doing interdisciplinary stuff so you can see connections between different disciplines, learning how to differentiate between, say, fact and propaganda - various kinds of ‘soft skills’ in many cases, that you might not be able to acquire on your own. But it’s no longer about the old model of coming there to be told what’s in a textbook, or try to memorise information so you can pass an exam.
Is there a group of people you think should have more involvement in school design?
Well, I think physical school design should be a result, a collateral benefit of a community coming together to talk about education, and talk about the future of their kids … the best investment you can make is in your children. Whether it’s the economy you’re talking about, or whether it’s the social health of a community. So, I think that the physical school design should manifest that philosophy. Unfortunately, what we have is a physical design that has been pre-thought, without any consideration to what today’s world looks like. So the physical model of the school that you see, mostly all around us, was actually designed between 1875 and 1925, and we haven’t really re-thought that. What I’m saying is, if you start with learning, as the driver, then you’re more likely to design a building that corresponds to what our aspirations are as a community, for what education should actually look like.
What is it you enjoy most about the work you’re doing now.
I feel fortunate because school buildings are sort of a discretionary expense, in many cases for school districts, and also that school buildings tend to stay for quite a long time, becomes a good catalyst to create a conversation around education itself. So I think that, of all the disciplines, people who are architects have an opportunity to bring a host of different specialties together in the education community, and re-think and transform an entire model. Create a brand new paradigm. Very few other disciplines have that, because they are all working in individual silos. So the architectural model allows us to become integrators and bring all the people together, so that the whole system is transformed.