Buildings That Teach

Learning, Learning Innovations, Online & Blended / by

10,000. That’s the number that appeared on Craig Schiller’s computer screen at the start of his presentation to a small group of parents and faculty at my daughter’s school this week.

“10,000 hours,” he explained. “It’s the number of hours according to Malcolm Gladwell that it takes to become an expert at something.” Schiller continued, “If each student spends about 14,000 hours in school buildings over the course of their educational career, what expertise do we want them to have when they graduate?”

Schiller is the founder of Build to Teach, an organization whose mission is to maximize sustainable design and the teaching potential of school buildings. Schiller, and others like him in the Living Buildings movement, believe that the school environment forms the context of the learning experience and a school’s architecture is a valuable manifestation of its values.

As such, schools can be designed in such a way as to allow students to seamlessly engage with the environment in order to become well-versed in principles of sustainability by virtue of their regular, seamless integration with a school built on sustainable design principles.

According to Schiller, research indicates that “green” schools are healthier, more cost-effective over time, and can improve student outcomes.

The most compelling (and exciting!) possibility from my view is the potential to bump up authentic, project-based learning to a whole new level.

Consider if you will, a school with solar panels that automatically collect energy data that can then be used across the grade levels to form the basis of lessons in science and mathematics. The students, so taken by their discoveries about the potential of solar energy, decide to launch a community awareness campaign — hitting on Common Core standards in language arts. Later, when the students learn they can’t actually reuse the water from their rainwater catch system that is filtered through their on-site natural wetlands due to existing state policy barriers, they write letters to their legislators and knock out a whole set of standards in Government and History. They track their progress on a student-run blog and partner virtually with students in other states who are taking on similar challenges.

The “Buildings That Teach” model sees the physical environment as an integrated part of the overall curriculum and culture of a school. Here, experiential learning is prized and, as Schiller says, the buildings become “living textbooks.” As schools across the country are experimenting with ways to re-imagine learning opportunities–through strategies such as personal digital learning, blended learning, competency-based learning–why not use this opportunity to re-imagine the purpose of the buildings themselves?

School buildings that can pass as prisons, where students sit passively in rectangular classrooms for seven hours a day, are just as outdated as the other elements of our current factory-model that demand updating. New forms of personalized learning require more flexible, multi-sensory learning spaces.

If we are creating a potential expert with each high school graduate, why not a generation of students who are experts in meaningful problem-solving and authentic learning who have simultaneously learned principles of sustainability, ecology, and permaculture?

The way I see it, it’s a way that technology can serve a higher purpose. It’s not “tech for tech’s sake” or “keeping up the the Jones’ shiny new device deployment.” It’s about starting with our goals for what education can and should be, then realizing the tools exist to make it possible.

To find out lots more about the possibilities, include examples of existing schools that have made this dream a reality, check out Craig’s 2012 CEFPI Symposium Presentation:
http://prezi.com/zdot3t7ml8rc/building-as-a-teaching-tool-cefpi-symposium-2012/

Carri Schneider

Carri Schneider

Carri Schneider is Director of Research and Policy for Getting Smart. Find Carri on Twitter @CarriSchneider.

3 Comments

Colleen Clements /

Buildings that teach sounds like an great innovation for blended teaching. I’ve heard a lot lately about real-life learning experiences for students in the community, learning from those actively advancing their fields. Having a school site that promotes green technology and innovation helps real-life come to the campus. In most cases, it seems more beneficial for schools to send students to experts in the community for real life learning. However, in the case of the green schools, students can learn from expert technology implementation at the school site. Worthy of thought for any school site improvement project, massive renovations or new developments.

Carri Schneider /

Thanks for your comments Colleen. I was pretty blown-away by the possibilities after the exploratory session with Craig Schiller. I’m glad this short overview of the potential of “buildings that teach” was enough to get readers to think about the possibilities, too.