Is Design the Third Teacher in Schools? | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Is Design the Third Teacher in Schools?

A new push to change schools and education is coming from an unlikely source. It's not teachers, parents, or students. It's coming from architects and designers. They hope to start a movement to rethink the design of schools and schoolyards, to improve teaching and learning.

Principal and Parents Unite to Transform a School

The drive for change comes from a pretty basic principle, but one that's a little startling. A lot of the schools we use today were constructed during the building boom that followed World War II.

DEWAR: Many people think that school was good enough for me, so it's good enough for my kid.

Rick Dewar's is a lead architect at the firm OWP & P/Cannon Design. He says it's not just that some of these old schools are crumbling.

DEWAR: The schools our kids live in were this factory model. They were really set up to deal with demographics and to run kids through a system and to pack their minds with ideas and thoughts and have them regurgitate that information back to us.

Dewar says schools were designed to reinforce conformity – everyone sitting up straight in neat little rows.

Today, for kids who are used to multi-tasking all the time, that's not far from torture.

DEWAR: The world's going to be a different place. They're going to have to be creative. The thinking that goes into schools now need to stimulate them in different ways and to create different people out of them.

Dewar's part of a group of architects, designers and furniture makers who are trying to convince educators and parents that the right environment can enhance learning.

In this classroom in District 220 in Barrington, about half the class is literally bouncing up and down. One kid is sitting on a big gym ball modified to look like a chair. Other fourth-graders are in chairs with inflatable cushions on them. There's a tall desk with a swing bar that a boy is kicking against over and over again.

You'd think it would be chaos.

Connie Simon says it's just the opposite. Simon is an assistant superintendent here.
SIMON: It just is not a natural thing to make kids sit for six hours a day. This provides opportunities for children to be able to move in a natural way that learning still continues.

Simon points to students like Jaycee Carden who are moving in place, but still focused on their work.

JAYCEE:  I usually do better in the chair, like I can think quicker when I'm in this chair because I'm also getting a lot of energy out at the same time, so it helps me think a little more.

There's plenty of research showing kids need to move to learn. And that kind of research should inform how schools are designed.

That's the idea behind a book called The Third Teacher. It was created by Dewar and other architects. Trung Le is one of the co-authors. Le says the book lists 79 ways to improve schools through design.

LE: One of the things we didn't want to do was create another architectural kind of like coffee table book.

He says there are some things schools can do on their own – for little to no cost:  Move around desks, or paint a wall in a different color or have students plant a garden.

Schools can replace broken old furniture with ergonomic desks and chairs that aren't too big or small for kids.

LE: We wanted different kinds of resources that would somehow make our experiences and what we've learned from other educators to be a lot more accessible.

When it comes to building green schools, and designing buildings that welcome new technology, Trung Le says the book shows how architecture can help shape the curriculum.

LE: The idea was to sort of galvanize a movement about changing teaching and learning.

ambi of tour: We're at Tarkington School of Excellence

Trung Le led the design team at this school on Chicago's Southwest Side. He gives a tour that highlights some of these Third Teacher ideas.

ambi of tour: This plaza we're standing here…

LE: It was challenging for us to introduce glass and transparency and natural daylight because of the whole safety issue. What if somebody drive by and shoot through the glass. Well, we say, what if kids everyday walk into a dark and not open and not transparent environment? It was a huge CPS shift.
ITURRALDE: If we as a community decided to live in fear and say, oh, it's too dangerous to have our kids outside, we would be losing something that's very special.

Vincent Iturralde is the principal at Tarkington.

ITURRALDE: What you need is the mindset of really saying this is our school, this needs to be a safe zone.

Iturralde says one of the unique elements, is how Tarkington shares land and space with the park district.

ambi: RECESS

That's meant a larger gym, and a field where kids can play during recess. The Park District also offers pre-school and after-school programs that Tarkington kids attend.

ITURRALDE: Students need to be active. They keep the kids constantly busy. And when the kids are constantly busy, they stay out of trouble. And so violence goes down, crime goes down, and our students' success rate goes up.

Principal Iturralde says teachers use the green features to highlight the school's environmental focus. And the teachers voted to extend their day so the kids could have recess and run all over that grassy field.

ambi: RECESS

ITURRALDE: It was the first LEED certified school in the city of Chicago, which had huge advantages that were unforeseen. It was amazing how many different things evolved from the building itself.

Like using the setting for hands-on lessons in the gardens, the field or even some unusual places.

ambi: BATHROOM TOUR: So I want you to think….

Teacher Meghan O'Connor asks the students to apply what they've learned about different forms of energy.

O'CONNOR: What about our toilets? Eew...

Another class goes up to the rooftop garden.

TEACHER: I want you to make sure you look at the roofs on the houses across the street….

Fourth-graders Ariel Riley and Kayla Ward stand side by side, taking notes.

ARIEL/KAYLA:  I think it helps global warming….

The girls say this hands-on learning helps them get good grades.

KAYLA/ARIEL: We can remember this moment and picture it in our mind and we can see it. And when you see stuff, you can remember it and get smarter and smarter.

The principal appreciates the rooftop garden. As Iturralde and Le look around, they see things that work, but also some missed opportunities. Iturralde shows Le a big open space in the hallway that's turned into an unofficial theater for students' poetry and speeches.

LE: This open area could be a little theater, with more acoustics, carpet floor, some very flexible track lighting that can focus on a little small stage. It doesn't really take that much.
KALSNES: How does that sound to you?
ITURRALDE: That sounds fantastic.
LE: We should come back and do that.
ITURRALDE: That's a great idea. Even if I fund that, that's a good idea to use this space.

That's the sort of conversation Le hopes to have with educators, parents and students from the very beginning. Le says that's the best way to do it – he argues everyone is a designer.

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