As the funds from President Biden’s Infrastructure bill filter down to the States and their respective State School Building Authorities, the focus seems to be repairs, renovations, and the construction of new school buildings. There is no language in this bill to suggest we take this landmark opportunity to improve all schools beyond “warm, safe, and dry.” No one has suggested that we take this opportunity to reinvent our schools, to reconfigure them for this new 21st-century generation of school children now being born into the emerging 4th Industrial Revolution. For our nation’s schools to compete internationally, the design language of our public and private schools must be reinvented to reflect the emergence of the 4th Industrial Revolution we are now living in and to give students and teachers alike the tools and learning environments they need to be successful in this new era.
Developing a New Generation of Schools
As 2024 begins, we look around and realize we are no longer designing schools for the children of tomorrow because tomorrow is now! We are now in the first years of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So, architects, planners, educators, and administrators must realign their design ideas for a new era. What is this new era we have entered? How did we get here? What do our children and grandchildren need to be successful in this new era? What hard and soft skills must they master to be happy? How must the learning environment of PK-12 schools evolve to get them there?
My colleagues and I have asked these critical questions for the last 15 years. Of course, we know that the answer does not begin with the school building; it starts with the child. That’s why I continue to repeat my mantra, “We must start with the child.” The child we are contemplating will not be out of college until the early 2040s. What will that world be like, and how do we ensure these future young adults are equipped with the durable skills needed for a future we are so far from now? What can we do to prepare this incoming generation to be successful and happy in the future?
Schools must be redesigned to support the development of critical human skills and behaviors such as patience, inquisitiveness, curiosity, empathy, collaboration, confidence, humor, and critical thinking. My mission, shared with a close-knit group of education architects, interior designers, planners, and teaching professionals, is to create a more open and agile learning environment for each school, making students genuinely “excited about coming to school and loving learning. We want them to be motivated, tuned in, and challenged.”
School is far more than a place to work and learn. It is also where we build relationships with others, find out how we can work collaboratively, develop a sense of ourselves, and discover how we fit into our world and society. We believe it takes the whole community to educate a child. Every school should be designed as a community resource so that local businesses and research facilities in the immediate area form cooperative relationships with their host school.
The Emerging “Student-Centered Collaborative Learning” Model
For years, Education Planners and Architects have discussed and tested design ideas for new schools being built in the rapidly unfolding 21st century. But while ideas about transforming the curriculum and expanding the pedagogical toolkit evolved, the notion of how the design of a new school should be organized remained static.
The traditional “Cell and Bells’ school model can no longer support the development of the human skills, competencies, and behaviors essential for young adults to succeed in the rapidly approaching AI-driven digital world of the mid-21st century.
It has been clear for many years now of the growing “Relevance Gap,” as identified by the late educator Dr. Richard Elmore, between Natural Learning and School Learning. Natural Learning encompasses those experiences and skills that are naturally born in all humans. Our brains are hard-wired for natural learning. It is how we learn to walk, talk, and hear — learning from our parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. Learning by doing, working out a problem on your own, and, by extension, creating new ideas and things: art, music, and scientific innovations. Since the 1990s, a growing chorus of schoolchildren has claimed that “school” is no longer relevant to their lives!
The traditional “Cell and Bells’ school model can no longer support the development of the human skills, competencies, and behaviors essential for young adults to succeed in the rapidly approaching AI-driven digital world of the mid-21st century. Over the last 15 years, a new pedagogical approach that encourages collaborative teaching and mentorship has taken root in the many schools we have designed. A new type of Learning Ecosystem that breaks free from the traditional programming DNA of school facility design has emerged. School design and pedagogy must work together as a unified Change Management strategy. School schedules require reconsideration of the boundaries of when learning, playing, and socialization occur. The world has become flatter faster; the world has changed. To support this change, we conceived of new design patterns that have evolved into a “Student-Centered Collaborative Learning Model.”
This new model is slowly replacing the traditional system of long corridors lined with individual classrooms. We call this traditional approach the “Cells and Bells” model. Within this model, the traditional classroom is analogous to the original one-room schoolhouse. In 1840, the Educator Horace Mann conceived of combining these single and highly inefficient schoolhouse classrooms into a single structure. This model remains the basic Design DNA for most schools built today, 180 years later!
Through this evolutionary process, we have witnessed a significant paradigm shift in our understanding of how learning patterns function and how teachers use these new schools.
The Student-Centered Collaborative Learning Model consists of a collection of collaborative learning centers, or “Learning Communities,” Each Learning Community is a powerful ensemble of spaces. At its center is a shared “Learning Commons,” which acts as a social heart and the main venue for teaching and student-directed learning. Surrounding this agile and flexible Learning Commons is a collection of connected learning studios, small group rooms, seminar spaces, active labs, and multi-sensory spaces.
Educators work in cross-functional teams to support each learner’s growth collectively. Therefore, no one teacher owns a classroom. Now that they have access to various types of teaching spaces within this new Learning Community, teachers find they can rotate through spaces as needed throughout the week. The teaching team meets periodically to plan how to use their new Learning Community. Teachers now have a collaborative workspace where real-time professional development can occur to support these spaces’ planned use. During this planning process, teachers become adept at many 21st-century skills and behaviors they need to model for their students.
Through this evolutionary process, we have witnessed a significant paradigm shift in our understanding of how learning patterns function and how teachers use these new schools. In almost every Learning Community we build, we see a shift from the Learning Studio as the primary instructional and learning space to the Learning Commons as the “breakout” space. Within a few months of a new school opening, the Learning Commons becomes the primary activity center for teaching and learning. The learning studio becomes the breakout space for smaller groups of collaborating students and the place for limited direct instruction by the teacher.
Children can select appropriate spaces within the Learning Community that best suit their learning needs or styles. They can also reconfigure the available furnishings to suit the needs and grouping. At the Eden Park Elementary School in Cranston, RI, the grades 3-5 students developed a term for this process. In the morning, all the furnishings in each space are arranged in a starting position. The students named this condition “Zero Space.” As the day progresses, the furnishings are regrouped several times as needed. At the end of the school day, the last students in each space must return their area to “zero space.” Students are no longer guests of their teachers; they are active participants in a vibrant new kind of learning community.
These kinds of stories are multiplying! The Student-Centered Collaborative Learning model is no longer a theory; this model has proven highly successful in our built school projects across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.
We are now in the first decade of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines.
The Advent of the “Fourth Generation School”
I coined the term “Fourth-Generation School” from insights I developed through 18 years of work with my colleagues at Fielding Nair International, personal insights from experiences within my family, and numerous conversations and presentations over the past few years. In April 2023, I was interviewed by Education Reimagined for their online magazine, where I discussed the main design goal of school architects: creating schools that cater to the needs of tomorrow’s students. However, as 2023 began, I realized that we are no longer designing schools for the children of tomorrow because tomorrow has arrived! Students now graduating from High School and post-secondary institutions are entering a rapidly changing world that is evolving faster than we can track.
We are now in the first decade of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. While these capabilities rely on the technologies and infrastructure of the Third Industrial Revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents new ways technology becomes fused within societies and even our bodies. Examples include genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, material science breakthroughs, and governance approaches that rely on cryptographic methods such as the blockchain. Global communication and instantaneous communion with one other can now happen within the palm of your hand.
The 4th Industrial Revolution is dramatically changing how we relate to one another, live, work, and educate our children. These inter-relational shifts are being enabled by Smart technologies, including the emergence of artificial intelligence, big data, augmented reality, blockchain security, the Internet of Things, voice control, and increasingly sophisticated levels of automation.
In light of these fantastic, civilization-changing developments, most schools still teach students in traditional educational environments designed to support non-collaborative, hierarchical teaching and learning. It is clear we must design schools for today’s students! Architects, planners, educators, and administrators must realign their design ideas for this new era.
My experiences with the Student-Centered Collaborative Learning Model show how we can bridge the Relevance Gap. Recent projects at the Eden Park Elementary School and the new 575-student Garden City Elementary School, both in Cranston, RI. The application of this model yields a new design language that supports a network-based pedagogy.
With the departure of corridors and autonomous classrooms, a new freedom in the Language of School Design has occurred. In reaction to this shift in pedagogical programming, the fundamental morphology of “School” building design has shifted from the rectilinear office building form to something far more organic. New Schools must be far more than a place to work and learn. It is also where we begin to build relationships with other people, find out how we work collaboratively, develop a sense of ourselves, and discover how we, as individuals, fit into our world and society. We believe that it takes an entire community to educate a child. This is the philosophy that now drives the conceptualization and development of new “Fourth Generation Schools.
My first grandson was born in 2021; he will graduate High School in 2039 and possibly college in 2043. What will their world look like? What hard and soft skills must our children and grandchildren master to be successful and happy in this new era? We must design spaces and pedagogies that support student-directed learning and honor a student’s voice. And given how fast our culture and society are transforming, students need to know that School is relevant and authentic. That School is the place where they will obtain the skills and knowledge to navigate the emerging 21st century!
Final Thoughts: 8 Things Every School Must Do To Prepare For The 4th Industrial Revolution
And finally, I am reprinting an edited/updated version of “8 Things Every School Must Do To Prepare For The 4th Industrial Revolution” by Bernard Marr, published in Forbes Magazine on May 23, 2019.
Inserts or edits by Jay Litman are identified by an asterisk (*)
1. Redefine the purpose of education – Throughout time, the purpose of education has evolved based on the needs of society during that period. It’s no different during this transition. Currently, education serves to prepare people to take on the tasks of a job or discipline to “do” something. As we move farther into the future, education will need to support children in developing the skillset and mindset to do anything in their future rather than a particular “something.”
2. * Improve STEAM education – (Originally titled – “Improve STEM education”) STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Design, Math) education needs to improve across the board regardless of income level, age, or gender. We still need to help students understand the values that will help us learn how to use this new technology ethically and morally; therefore, humanities training and professionals will still be essential.
In fact, according to The Future of Jobs Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum, executives desired employees with critical thinking and collaboration skills even more than those with tech skills. We must model 21st century social/emotional skills like team building, collaboration, and analytical thinking.
3. Develop human potential – Through the design of new learning spaces that support networked forms of teaching and learning.Even though machines are mastering many tasks typically performed by humans, people are still more adept at creative endeavors, imagination, critical thinking, social interaction, and physical dexterity. The educational system of the future needs to develop these inherent abilities in humans, so they are equipped to partner with machines in the future rather than compete with them. Create new Learning environments designed around a high regard for emotional health and wellness.
4. Adapt to lifelong learning models – Intentional education can no longer end after leaving school or college. Education must become a lifelong endeavor, and sources for education need to evolve to provide those opportunities. We must develop pedagogies that give kids the tools to “start a fire anywhere.” Attributes such as creativity, curiosity, and design thinking will be essential for the future workforce. People will no longer start a career path and only grow with one role, so nurturing competent lifelong learners becomes essential.
5. Alter educator training – Our FI educators work closely with the school faculty and community teams at each school we undertake to develop transition, readiness training, and support strategies for the teaching staff as they move from the outdated Industrial Age classroom model to a new 4th Generation Learning Community model now emerging worldwide.
6. Make Schools Makerspaces – To allow students to practice their curiosity, problem-solving skills, inquisitiveness, and the iterations of failure, schools must provide learning environments that will enable students to be creators using various physical and digital tools. This can help equip children with the love of learning, allowing them to make sense of their world through hands-on experiences emphasizing collaboration and creativity.
7. * International Mindfulness – In a digital, interconnected world, students of the future will need to have a global mindset. Schools and educators must adapt learning to take this into account. For example, history might not be taught from the perspective of one country but rather with examples from around the world, and instead of teaching the same languages that have always been taught, schools should look at international demand and the languages of emerging markets. National history should be taught within the context of world history and current geopolitical developments.
8. * Wellness and Well-being – The concept of “Wellness” fits together nicely with Well-being. Wellness refers to the body’s physical condition, while “Well-being” refers to a state of mind. Here we have human physiology intertwined with psychology. Well-being comes from a sense of achievement and control over a person’s daily existence. It grows when teachers feel they are making a difference in their students’ lives. For the young student, this sense of well-being also grows from a sense of control and achievement.