School, also a matter of space

Today, the more than 40,000 Italian school buildings also represent the various historical phases of our country. About 1,500 were built before the 20th century and are therefore often furnished in “historic” buildings adapted to the new use. There are buildings for rent built as apartment blocks that house a school: 1A in the living room and 2B in the bedroom, but there is no shortage of premises built to be warehouses or old monasteries. But if the idea is that a school building consists of classrooms that are simple rectangular rooms, the problem is capacity, and the debate focuses on the “chicken farm” classes and the number of children, per square meter per pupil: by default, the problem is solved.

Yet we all know that space is a very effective teacher who is able to change the physiognomy of an entire school through the design of interiors, interior design, and the integration of technologies into the overall design of a new school concept. An innovative design of space is able to change the teaching much more than many texts or training courses.

In order to design space and interior design differently, however, it is necessary to have a concrete and articulated idea of ​​change, of the organization of the school model: but if in Recovery plan and in the recent ministerial document developed for the construction of innovative schools, the guidelines as their driving force have energy efficiency and reserve a secondary space for organizing time, teaching methods, technologies that should have represented the center, we risk losing an opportunity that will hardly return .

Admittedly, awareness of energy sustainability is fundamental today for any building intervention and therefore also for school buildings, but the central idea must be innovation of the school model, in order to strengthen what tomorrow’s school requires. Simply intervening on the envelope means leaving a repetitive architectural schema consisting of corridors and classrooms unchanged, functional in relation to the frontal lesson and to the school, which has been known to us for decades: it is instead necessary that the design be guided of the change in the school model, by the need for new teaching methods, from the reorganization of school time and the need to include technologies in the learning process, integrated in pedagogical practice and not referred to “special” places such as laboratories or worse reduced to knick abilities.

The renewal of the school model is really urgent because the conditions for the school’s disparity with everything that surrounds it are numerous. Our high school is centered on the frontal lesson: both the organization of the student schedule and the teachers’ employment contract are based on the lesson hours, and the time at school is all dedicated to verifying what has been understood and in practice it is exhausted in the lessons and in the written and oral “tests”. The emergence of the industrial society has led to the design of education systems as a large “enterprise”, a centralized mass reading structure, goals for which the frontal lesson and the study of the textbook represent the most economical and functional solution.

From a spatial point of view, having to cope with the rapid population growth and, above all, having to open schools in very peripheral places, in the middle of isolated areas, any rectangular space is enough to transform into a classroom with a few basic pieces of furniture specified by the 1860 Regulation (included a crucifix And a portrait of the king). It was not until 1923 that some more precise rules were dictated in terms of size and colors. Today, these large systems appear increasingly obsolete, but we must not forget that they have done their job very well.

The first squeak of the system is felt in primary school, where the structure and disciplinary fragmentation are also less pronounced. Freinet, Montessori, Lombardo Radice and the whole activism movement had already in the 1920s highlighted how the predominance of the textbook, the didactic organization centered entirely on the written text and the lesson and consequently also the organization of space was in primary school contrary to the needs and demands from children who were asked to adapt to an environment, even physical, characterized by immobility and attention. Now the doors to the classroom were opened and all possible space was used, the desks were moved, the desk disappeared and the space was populated with “places for direct observation”. The experimental method was at the center of the innovation activity of the many primary school teachers who fought for the school to adapt its languages, methods and spaces to children, as the learning was based on reflection, direct observation and reasoning. The classroom, designed to focus on the lesson, becomes inadequate, just as the decor is painstakingly adapted to a new didactic model.

The increase in the school population gradually reduces the “free” spaces in the school building, and then everything ends up being concentrated in the classroom, which is divided into “corners” dedicated to this or that activity, to group work, to host these technologies that serve to transform, at least in part, the pedagogical model, even if the teacher seeking innovative models is forced to settle for the space and decor available. An inflexible environment that does not tolerate these transformations. The design of school buildings is not made on the basis of the activities they are to host, creates functional environments and decor, and has no internal articulation, with the exception of gyms and administrative offices, and the laboratories are also picked up from classrooms. This is the case with the computer room, which has the same layout as a regular classroom, but which also has computers on the desks.

In those years, the perception of the school as a “learning environment”, with the student’s activity at the center, gave rise to many attempts to transform space and teaching, which, however, always clashed with a world that was forced to constantly use paper. . , written text, “objects” that set precise limits on the ability to base learning on direct experience. As we move away from primary school, the urge to transform, albeit to a limited extent, also the school environment disappears: Even many laboratories, especially in high schools, are built so that students can passively see the experiment that the teacher performs. Only in professional institutes the laboratory is intended as an alternative to the classroom, where the subjects that “count” remain. A contrast between normal classrooms and laboratories that also makes children behave differently depending on whether they are in a laboratory or sitting at the desk in front of the blackboard: the environment therefore learns is a crucial element in creating the climate, the social environment, in to control students’ behavior, in determining their educational success.

What’s the news today? Why redesign buildings? By rewriting the title of a well-known book by Francesco Antinucci, we can say that “the classroom is broken”. The whole school “collapses”: On the walls of the school model we know, conspicuous cracks open up, and the earthquake that is going on as a result of the separation of two “faults”, the school and the community, was triggered by the students. This is a structural crisis and not a temporary phenomenon. The school disconnects deeper and deeper from society: it is urgent to rethink it in all its dimensions, including the architectural and interior design, with a view to a place built and designed to explore, experiment, build, also thanks to the use of technologies.

If we want to transform the school from a teaching environment to a learning environment, we must completely rethink the spaces. Without a strong connection between the transformation of the school into its basic elements and architectural design, we will only risk building buildings in accordance with the law, perhaps with a strong energy saving and anti-seismic, but designed to host the “usual school “, as I wrote in my latest book The school that does not exist yet. Building a new school today means looking to the future and thinking that it will host students who are destined for a world we do not yet know, but who we know will be different from ours. The school model is a large puzzle, where each piece is connected to the other, and it is illusory to think of changing it without an overall vision, facing individual pieces of the mosaic.

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