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Artifacts of schooling

What will today’s school designs say about us to future generations?

By Frank S. Kelly, FAIA (Stantec Houston)

I’m an architect, planner, and writer focused on education. My wife is a scholar with deep knowledge about the history, literature, and culture of France. Together we’ve traveled in France and Europe, visiting and photographing sites like prehistoric caves and paintings, massive Celtic stone monuments, Greek and Roman ruins, and early Christian, Romanesque, and Gothic structures. With each visit we’ve found ourselves amazed by these old marvels and tried to imagine what the people were like who created them —how they lived, what they thought, and what things did they value? 

Returning from one of our recent annual explorations—our heads filled with ancient wonders, and thoughts about their creators—I had a realization. What if we tried to imagine what archeologists might surmise about this generation a thousand years from now? With my deep passion for education, this notion gave way to thinking about how this related to our schools; what would current school designs say to future generations about us and what we valued?

I think it’s important not to try and get into an archeologists mind, but to pose these questions to today’s educators and planners so they may explore these ideas. The process alone is very serious—stepping into another millennium to look back at yourself reveals all sorts of things—and it is, at times, uncomfortably humorous. I wrote a paper on the “Artifacts of Schooling” for the Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk: Vol. 4: Iss.2 which may be downloaded here.  

Here are examples of the ‘artifacts’ I explored in my paper:

  • Buildings speak to us about what we do within them. What will our schools say about the communities and students they serve?
  • The objective for student’s attending school is learning. Will archeologists think our schools were designed around teachers or students?
  • Digital technology is important in (or for) just about everything we do today. When archeologists dig up school classrooms and kids’ bedrooms, where will they think kids used technology most effectively?
  • Current regulations call for the size of school libraries to be proportionate to their enrollments. What will archeologists think when they discover that students in big schools had access to more information than students in smaller schools?
  • We take real pride in making school structures that are durable and lasting. When archeologists find info on Moore’s Law (regarding the accelerating rate of change in digital technology), will they be perplexed about how our schools did (or didn’t) keep up with the technological changes in the world around them?
  • Schools serve students about nine months each year with the same time allotted for every teacher, every subject, every student, every day. Will archeologists wonder how all kids could learn at the same pace, regardless of subject or individualized needs?
  • Student cafeterias are typically furnished with folding tables with attached seats arranged in long rows-similar to jail or penitentiary dining halls. Will historians wonder why the set-ups between the two are so similar?
  • For decades, we’ve struggled to design schools that help more students succeed. In the process, we’ve written lots of great books and built schools that have achieved very high graduation rates. However, those are not the “norm” and most schools remain unchanged. Will archeologists 1,000 years from now wonder why we ignored proven ideas for creating better schools?

Centuries from now, people will marvel at what we’ve left behind, much like I have when I’ve traveled. So, maybe the best way to think about the future of our schools would be to mentally transport ourselves decades, generations, even centuries ahead—and then look back and try to make sense of what we’re doing right now.  What is the legacy our generation will leave to those that come after us?

Frank Kelly is a recognized leader in the architectural profession in the Houston area. He has written and spoken extensively on the entire process of school design, co-authored the Region IV Bond Planning Manual and the books “Teaching the Digital Generation”, and “Learning Without Classrooms” with Ted McCain and Ian Jukes on 21st Century High Schools.

A classroom of the 1900s compared to today’s classroom

Centuries from now, people will marvel at what we’ve left behind

Frank Kelly

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