Kids’ Extra Credit: Redesigning Education

(Students Rebuild)

Public schools in urban California and rural North Carolina are breaking through customary walls to pursue dynamic learning environments and impact their communities. Of course – design plays a part.

Around the nation a debate rages on how to educate children. On one end, there is a push to bring all students up simultaneously, in a “standardized” fashion; from the other end comes an argument that each student learns in a different way, and many would thrive given alternative environments for learning – you know, “beyond the textbook.”

The Windsor Super farmers market pavilion was built in 2011 by 13 high schoolers and two design instructors

But, regardless of stance, could anyone refute or turn away learning alternatives if they were cost-free additions to the approved and accepted curriculum?

This week (on the same day, actually) I encountered two examples of design (yep, the d-word) making its way into public schools and creating huge and exciting changes to they way students learn and how they improve their neighborhoods. Education Outside is a San Francisco nonprofit working with schools to re-imagine, and rebuild, their stoic schoolyards. Project H (another nonprofit) just finished a year-long, in-person high school shop class in Windsor, NC, whose story and outcomes were far from ordinary.

Argonne School yard

The schoolyard (above) at SF’s Argonne Middle School is wanting for some green. They’re fortunate enough to be able to walk to a SFUSD-sponsored community garden a block away for more hands-on plant learning (below).

“Education Outside”

At midday I moseyed over to the ol’ local urban advocacy office (SPUR) for a lunchtime forum called “The Green Transformation of San Francisco Schools.” A panel of USD reps and a dedicated nonprofit group walked us through green policies already underway, thanks to some forward thinking municipal policies (waste diversion, renewable energy for all public buildings, energy conservation-that’s-admittedly-much-easier-when-you-don’t-need-A/C, etc.), before getting to the meat of their presentation: schoolyards.

Look at your average blacktop, the panel says. You’ve got one group of kids playing basketball, or some kind of ball, while many of other kids sit on a bench, or against a wall, with nothing to do. Asphalt isn’t a very accommodating environment for most people.

Part of the Education Outside mission is to “open the classroom door,” converting these blandscapes into dynamic, green learning environments where everyone can find a space, explore and learn about ecosystems and science, almost without realizing it! Instead of blacktop, there’s a vegetable garden, there are creeks directing the school’s rainwater runoff, there are chicken coops and little nooks for the littlest kids. The City of San Francisco had passed education bonds that have helped kick off these outdoor classrooms, and after a few quick years they’ve become a hit around town. When classes started last month 20 schools were participating in the program.

EO’s promo video (7:33) walks you through their program, and how urban kids can combat Nature Deficit Disorder (whaa?), become more engaged in science, and extend the rewards of dynamic outdoor classrooms to their families and communities. You may never look at a schoolyard the same way again.

Some of the panel’s arguments will create a little more controversy. For instance, the re-introduction of risk to the playground. The play equipment’s gotten too safe and sterilized, and that may have damaging effects on a child’s development. Imagine instead pathways and uneven grounds that help build a sense of balance and confidence; imagine “graduated challenges” that encompass a range of easy-to-hard elements bringing dimensionality to play.

There’s such a thing as a “Berlin style” playground using more natural elements – tree trunks, boulders – that would reacquaint city kids with nature on a daily basis. Currently, the panel notes, kids at the Starr King school are charretting what elements they most want in their schoolyard, and the points made at the talk seem to reflect the kids’ interests for more ways to feed their growth.

You probably aren’t Scottish, but this gentleman’s observations on the Berlin style carry some universal lessons:

Education Outside sees a schoolyard revolution spreading from the SF Bay Area. The City’s particularly fortunate to have the right climate for these transformations – other parts of the country face different challenges, that students are no less equipped to face.

“If You Build It”

That evening I joined some AFHers (Architecture for Humanitarians?) at a screening of a new documentary on humanitarian design called If You Build It (the title alone prompts one to ask “who will come??”). The film follows a couple of young design instructors as they engage 13 students of a small North Carolina town struck by a 1-2 economic punch: the Recession, followed by flooding.

Here’s a preview:

If You Build It– Teaser from OCP Media on Vimeo.

The situation in Windsor was dire. There was little promise for the kids there, and the school system was hurting. One scene showed the students completing much of their corsework online – including Phys Ed! In an environment this trapped it’s difficult to even imagine a new way of learning – much less accept or support.

At the behest of a visionary Bercie County school district supervisor, the Project H (for humanity, health, habitats…) duo of Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller moved to a house in Windsor and drew up a curriculum for the shop class, to be based in a large scale woodshop that could get the kids first thinking through their hands, and then design to change their environments. The class would last a year and cover three built projects of increasing complexity.

Of course, everything wasn’t all peaches for this experimental classroom. Almost immediately “Studio H” faced problems, including defunding and friction for being seen as upstarts by the community – even while the students were learning how to design, finishing small projects, and really digging into the class.

The year culminated with the design and construction of a Farmer’s Market that was hoped to boost Windsor’s economy. Since flooding wiped out downtown businesses, there was much doubt that the town would survive. Coming out of the students themselves, the market was hoped to provide a venue for locals to share their wares and garden exploits, drum up business and galvanize the town.

Of course, none of this was certain before opening day, and the accelerated construction phase, taking place over the Summer, would put major strains on the class and instructors (who also built it).

We were taken through a great arc of unknowns, discoveries, and intimidating hardships that Emily and Matt often bore themselves, unpaid (though grant funding sponsored the program), struggling to see whether their vision of design education would be worth it all.

Amazing stuff – that got our little group to reflect on “what it all means.”


Acceptance of these programs largely boils down to the amount of trust the “visionaries” are able to establish with their communities. Our group talked about how, for all intents and purposes, a project is simply NOT successful if it doesn’t come out of the community itself. Understandably, then it’s easier for a city to adapt new and at times radical changes to the way schools are run because: math. More neighbors equals a higher likelihood a knowing local is bringing these suggestions to the table.

In smaller rural environments, it’s not uncommon to have to introduce a designer to work locally to carry a project through that yes ultimately does have a real, positive and lasting impact on a school and its community.

At one point in If You Build It, Project H takes the audience through all the stages of design – the first stage being “research.” After the movie the AFHers wondered if there was actually a step before that: being “embedded” or developing the means to even DO research. This step may take the most time of all.

New learning environments seem to be worth the effort. We often forget how crucial experimentation is in the course of our daily lives. It’s through a series of the periodic query “what if we did it another way (at least just for a bit)” that we can make deliberate the accidental discovery of better ways to live, learn and grow. An uncomfortable reality is that these experiments will always COST something. Meaning there is financial risk in getting an experiment wrong.

Would we prefer encounter these risks early, and walk away maybe with a few scrapes and bruises, or wait until inaction compounds into something more serious?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s