All Articles Education Teacher as architect

Teacher as architect

What classroom design conditions are needed to allow the best to blossom in our students?

6 min read




I have no training or background in architecture, but I have benefitted from the various tours I have taken of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. During these tours, the knowledgeable guides have described Wright’s intention for creating the experience for those being in that physical space. It’s unfortunate that Wright never designed schools, because I would love to see the environment he would create to promote learning; I am confident that it would be dramatically different from the typical school building most of us have experienced.

Most schools and classrooms have inherited a design intended for confining, controlling and managing human behavior. This design has remained basically the same for over a hundred years. It has contributed to the type of hierarchical, command and control culture that exists in most school environments. The unspoken but pervasive message that this design and culture gives to both teachers and students is that learning is restricted to a predetermined curriculum delivered by those in authority. Students, those on the receiving end of it, must demonstrate competence to receive approval and be considered successful.

Although there have been calls for changes and improvements for almost as long as the design has been in place, the nature of that change has been unclear. Some proposed changes leave the design in place and suggest modifications within the status quo. Some changes are more radical pointing towards redesigning schools. This lack of consensus is one reason why schools are successful at resisting change.

Upon reflecting on these issues, I recalled a quote from John Dewey: “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.” In this succinct statement, Dewey told us where we are (point A) and where we needed to go (point B) in changing schools. He said that what happens in the basic design of school is not education. If this is true — and I think it is — then, what do we call what has been happening in schools? And if education is “life” then we must reflect upon the deeper question: What is life?

Maybe Dewey took the Latin meaning of e ducere: to lead out of, to make this important distinction between what he saw happening in schools and what he thought should happen. His vision of education was the freeing, unfolding and discovering who we are and our purpose as we live and work together as a community. Life is an ongoing learning process, a journey that could not be contained, pre-determined or clearly defined by others for any individual. What happens in most schools is more akin to training: giving someone a set of specific skills for performing certain tasks for some well defined outcomes. Training is a good and necessary activity for certain situations but it is not education. Acquiring a set of skills for one job does not automatically transfer to other jobs. Education, however, is learning how to live and learn in social world. It is a continuous process of life revealing itself.

Dewey’s vision of education meant that people determine their own lives (i.e. write their unique life stories rather than follow a script handed to them). People who were “educated’ would naturally change the world, and seek new frontiers rather than stay locked into the world as it. Conversely, simply preparing students for a well defined, pre-determined version of life only ensures that the world stays as it is and the future becomes just a reiteration of the past.

Dewey’s vision of education can be distilled into two key outcomes for students: agency and community. Agency is the sense that a person can solve problems, achieve goals and determine his/her own outcomes. Community emerges from each person recognizing and contributing to the common good: creating the conditions for respecting and supporting each other’s agency. People with a sense of agency can, therefore, create a different world and a brighter future for everyone.

The distinction between training and educating is not philosophical or theoretic one; it manifests itself by how a teacher views and treats students. It is grounded in relationships.   

Here is a brief example of education in action that I observed:

I walked into a first-grade classroom and didn’t immediately see the teacher. She was crouched down talking to a group of students at a table in the corner of the room. The rest of the students were in cooperative groups at round tables that had piles of books on them. The students were talking to each other about the insect each had chosen to study for the book they were writing. Some were taking notes on post-its from the books on the table.  When I asked them what they were doing, they replied that they were doing research on their chosen insect. When I asked why, they answered that they were sharing their books at a special event that parents would be invited to attend.

Although I thought I knew what education was, that brief moment crystallized it’s meaning for me. That teacher trusted her students as learners, trusted their desire to learn and share. She designed the classroom so that agency and community would be the inevitable outcomes from living in that environment. She was an architect who knew what conditions were needed to allow the best to blossom in her students.

She also, by the way, used to tell me just how much she loved being an educator because she learned something new everyday.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


Like this article? Sign up for ASCD SmartBrief to get news like this in your inbox, or check out all of SmartBrief’s education newsletters, covering career and technical education, educational leadership, math education and more.