Involving teachers and students in creating their own learning spaces

When natural disasters strike, as occurred this year in Nepal, relief and humanitarian agencies must mobilize immediately to rebuild schools, homes, and communities to save lives, provide shelter and safety, and restore to affected communities a sense of normalcy.

This post suggests one additional post-recovery activity. When it comes to rebuilding education facilities, as much as possible, involve the “users”—teachers, principals and students—in the process of designing their new schools. This is a best practice in “stable” contexts, but may be even more important in post-disaster ones.

User-oriented design

In February 2006, 14 months after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, I went to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to lead a USAID-funded design of a new teacher training facility for Syiah Kuala University.

The existing teacher training college (or “FKIP” — its Indonesian acronym) had been severely damaged in the earthquake that measured over 9.0 on the Richter Scale, killing an estimated 130,000 people in Aceh alone. When I arrived in Banda Aceh in February 2006, it still had lots of rubble. Many with whom I worked still lived in temporary shelters. Everyone had harrowing stories of how a Hokusai-like wave, had, in a matter of minutes, violently changed their lives forever.

Per USAID’s mandate, this was to be a conceptual design (essentially a charrette)1. Over the next two weeks, instructors and students (pre-service teacher educators and their pre-service students) designed their new teacher training college—from foundation to ceiling—as well as all interior spaces, classrooms, furniture and fixtures.

My daylong facilitation with teachers and students was followed by evenings spent with a team of engineers to examine the cost and feasibility of participants’ ideas. Two architecture students volunteered their services, giving visual life in the form of elevation drawings and floor plans to the verbal ideas of instructors and students.

Form follows function

When I shared the FKIP’s participatory design process with civil engineers I met during my stay, they were dubious. “They (instructors and students) won’t know what they want. They don’t know how to design a building. You have to do it.”

But the instructors and students did know how to design a school. So, too, did teacher pre-service educators and pre-service teachers with whom I worked in Pakistan several years later in 2011 on the design of four teacher training facilities (one in a post-earthquake area).

Indeed, who better to design schools and classrooms than the people who use them most—teachers and their students?

The original education facilities that we were redesigning in Pakistan and Banda Aceh had all been designed withoutuser input. They were the epitome of how not to design a school. Cramped spaces and bulky, fixed benches made group work and teacher circulation throughout the class all but impossible. Uncomfortable seating, fluorescent lighting, concrete walls that captured heat in the summer and cold in the winter, and poor acoustics made for undesirable and uncomfortable learning spaces.

Understanding through design

As is typically the case, people can share exactly what they need and what works best for them—if we ask them. In Indonesia and Pakistan, instructors knew that any new building would have little money for maintenance; thus the new facility would need to minimize recurrent utility costs through design elements that promoted natural light, natural ventilation and thermal comfort.

Female students (both at the teacher training college level in Indonesia, Pakistan, and the secondary school level in the West Bank, where I also led similar conceptual designs in 2008) spoke of the importance of having additional, safe, clean, locked latrines. All students wanted classrooms with flexible furniture so they could create various grouping configurations as demanded by the learning task.

In Pakistan, Aceh, and the West Bank, teachers, students, school leaders together developed an instructional philosophy, physical design principles, floor plans, a budget, and formed steering committees to oversee various components of their new facilities. Most important, the facility design prompted teachers and students to deeply discuss instruction and how space impacted instruction (the new teacher training facility in Banda Aceh opened in 2010. See images here).

In fragile contexts, advocating for more user-oriented design of schools and teacher education facilities may seem low on the list of educational priorities, but I think it is critical for several reasons.

Design influences learning

First, no matter the context or conditions, we should engage teachers and students in the design of educational facilities as a basic best practice in education.

There is a growing and robust body of research in education specifically, and in facility design broadly, linking space with performance, attitudes and productivity.

Indeed, in many of the education projects in which we work, there is a push toward more interactive pedagogies and greater student collaboration. However, classrooms full of phalanxes of desk and chairs that restrict movement make this physically and conceptually impossible.

Research in the US and UK demonstrates that the physical conditions of classrooms and schools are as likely to affect student learning as many other factors commonly given much greater public policy attention.

Simple interventions—increasing the amount of natural light in a classroom (something every teacher and student with whom I worked requested)—have been shown to have equal or greater impact on student learning as other more expensive interventions (such as putting computers in classrooms)23.

Design as healing

In post-disaster recovery contexts, the education facility design process described above has a dual function: It is about designing spaces that promote optimal teaching and learning and it is also about helping communities heal. Psychologists speak of “post-traumatic growth” (Tideschi & Calhoun, 2004) — positive changes that can result from cataclysmic and traumatic events.

For pre-service instructors and students in Banda Aceh, the design process did not erase the devastation or loss wrought by the tsunami. But the weeks together designing the specifications of the new teacher training facility was regenerative and healing.

While disaster and conflict rob people of choices, participating in design and building can restore some sense of agency and autonomy. Giving victims of disasters a voice and choice in designing their school allows them to create something positive from something traumatic and devastating and do so within a supportive community. Relief and development become, then, not something that we do for people, but with them.