Century-Old Decisions That Impact Children Every Day

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 9, 2018 1:45 pm

Alexandra Lange's interest in school design started in her childhood, when she read Little House on the Prairie, with its indelible depiction of Laura's one-room schoolhouse in Wisconsin.

Today, she's an architecture and design critic. Her new book, The Design of Childhood, considers the physical spaces where our children learn and grow: from the living room rug crowded with toys, to the streets, welcoming or dangerous, to classrooms, bright and new or dilapidated.

"I felt like a lot of the contemporary discussion about education was really focused on content," she tells NPR. "In that really tight space in front of the kid's face. And as someone interested in design I'm always interested in, what kind of room are you in? How much natural light does it get? What kind of materials is it made of? What kind of a chair are you sitting in?"

One of the most contentious issues in education today is how much our schools have, or haven't, kept up with the times. The physical plants of schools represent the biggest capital investment in the provision of education, so they tend to stay in use as long as possible. And, Lange's book shows how everything from the dimensions of a room to the height and placement of windows can make certain kinds of learning easier or harder.

The familiar one-room schoolhouse ruled from Colonial times. But starting in the 19th century, she writes, big public schools were built in urban centers. They had facilities like gyms and auditoriums, sometimes open to the public. And they had several stories of classrooms, outfitted with the learning technologies of the time: blackboards, globes and maps.

These rooms were designed for one type of learning only: direct instruction. They had rows of individual desks, originally fixed to the floor, facing front — a slight update from the one-room schoolhouse days, when students often sat on benches. These rooms were lit by large rows of windows with light meant to come over the left shoulder to reduce glare and shadows on a student's notebook — presuming, of course, that the students must all be right-handed.

"If you measure a classroom in St. Louis or Chicago or New York from 1925, the proportions are probably going to be within a foot of the same," Lange says — sized to hold about 56 students.

That standardization, and the image of American schools preserved in amber, is a drum often beaten by critics. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently tweeted out a decades-old picture of a classroom with the message ... "Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely hasn't."

Lange calls this a "frustrating canard which is not exclusive to Betsy DeVos ... I think a lot of the tech leaders who are trying to disrupt education also keep repeating this idea that the classroom hasn't changed in 100 years."

Yes, some century-old schools are still in use, she says, but what teachers are actually doing with them today is very different.

"My own kids' public school in Brooklyn is in a 1929 building," she says, a school built for desks in rows.

"But they don't have any of that furniture anymore. Now they have small tables that the kids sit at when they have to do heads-down work. They have a rug facing a screen for when they're getting direct instruction. The younger kids' classrooms often have a block play area or a dress-up area. And the older kids' classrooms, there's still kind of a work zone for project-based learning," where kids can work hands-on and collaborate in groups.

Lange says another innovation is the addition of technology like laptops and tablets, which often travels from classroom to classroom in locked, rolling carts: "So essentially they've created a project-based learning design within the individual classroom."

The tale of the century-old industrial-era classroom also leaves out an entire epoch of school buildings, inspired by the progressivism of John Dewey and others. Postwar suburban schools were much more likely to be "single-story and kind of spread out around courtyards."

Equity, or more to the point, inequity, has always been an issue in the building of public schools in America. Lange's book has two instructive case studies that went against the grain.

In the 1920s, Julius Rosenwald, who made his fortune with Sears, Roebuck, teamed up with educator Booker T. Washington to found thousands of schools for African-American children across the American South during a time when, Lange says, many had no schools at all. The foundation gave out a pattern book, intended to be simple enough that the school could be built of wood by local carpenters. "But the design of the classrooms were completely up-to-date, though the overall appearance of the schools had to be kept humble," — lest local white leaders get jealous.

Similarly, in the Jim Crow 1950s, Charles Colbert designed a series of schools for African-American children in New Orleans that became modernist landmarks. They borrowed from local styles, with raised classrooms and shaded outdoor walkways. Despite the concerns of preservationists, one of the last of these schools, Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, was demolished in 2011.

In the 1960s and '70s, modernism got even more innovative, with the rise of the open-plan school.

"An open-plan school is basically a big room. Often they were fancifully shaped into circles and then the classrooms would have been wedge-shaped."

These schools were part of a movement to give more autonomy to children, recognizing that, "sitting upright in a chair all day is not what most kids want to do nor is it conducive to all kinds of work. So there are a lot of choices in terms of the furniture as well as in terms of the room sizes."

These choices included "small, medium and large" spaces for learning solo, in small groups, or in large groups. They featured soft furniture that kids themselves could move. They might have had a "kiva" — an open amphitheatre, maybe with carpeted stairs as seats.

Lange herself attended a school like this in North Carolina. It's a model that she says is "heavily discredited — mostly for acoustic problems. They were really loud." The apparent flexibility belied a lot of careful "choreography" of loud and quiet activities. And, as the fashion for progressive and interest-driven learning gave way to stricter standards-based instruction, these literally and figuratively squishy designs fell out of fashion.

However, when Lange traveled the world to visit some of the most lauded "custom-built, Ted Talk schools" of today, she found, despite the constant "rhetoric of newness," a lot of familiar features from that 1970s era.

In new project-based, inquiry-based schools, "the idea is to kind of break the box of the classroom ... You're seeing all kinds of different learning encounters essentially set up through the architecture." These ideas are layered in with newer concepts like sustainability and portable, digital technology. Instead of being fixed to the ground, desks and chairs may be on wheels.

Fundamentally, no matter the era, says Lange, "the design of the classroom is a technology, and you can interpret that in a lot of different ways. Architects can make that look more, and less, typical. But the point is the instruction, the interaction in the classroom, not that it looks more like a circle or more like a square or whatever else."

What will schools of the future look like? Lange ponders the question: "What about kids using laptops on tuffets in a field? One current line of thinking goes toward forest preschools and urban farms, the other toward all education being contained in a laptop or tablet. [Future designs] could combine the two."

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School architecture has changed over generations. We've gone from one-room schoolhouses to open classrooms, from blackboards to whiteboards to tablets. And yet, schools designed for one era often have to meet the needs of students for generations to come. Anya Kamenetz, of the NPR Ed team, takes us to a 90-year-old school in New York where you can walk through history all the way to the present.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Near Manhattan's garment district stands the former Straubenmuller Textile High School.

ALEXANDRA LANGE: Half of a city block - it's huge.

KAMENETZ: Alexandra Lange is an architecture critic. Her new book is "The Design Of Childhood." We've come here to see how the decisions made by architects and designers shape the way children learn and teachers teach. Our first stop is the big historic lobby - the year, 1929. The walls were painted in frescoes by artists for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Lange says this school is a classic example of a building boom that started when big city public schools began replacing the old one-room schoolhouses. Straubenmuller was a vocational high school, the first one ever built to serve the local textile industry.

LANGE: So this school had a room with weaving in it. It had a room with fake department store windows.

KAMENETZ: We huff and puff up the stairs to the fifth floor classrooms. This was the era of conformity, says Lange.

LANGE: If you measure a classroom in St. Louis or Chicago or New York from 1925, the proportions are probably going to be within a foot of the same.

KAMENETZ: Rooms were typically built for 56 students. The windows here start about three feet up. And they go all the way to the ceiling - more than 12 feet high. This wasn't exactly a flexible layout. Classroom desks had cast-iron pedestals fixed to the floor.

LANGE: The light was ideally supposed to come over their left shoulder, illuminate their book open in front of them. And that way, they would have less eyestrain.

KAMENETZ: Of course, this plan assumed that every single student was right-handed. Now, we're going to fast-forward a few decades. Alexandra Lange says that starting around the middle of the 20th century, school design started to loosen up. And lesson plans did too.

LANGE: So we've taken the elevator to the seventh floor, and it immediately feels really different.

KAMENETZ: Today, this building hosts six different New York City public schools all packed in together. The seventh floor belongs to a public middle and high school called Quest to Learn, which uses game-based and project-based learning. This is what they call the commons.

LANGE: There's a curve at the end of the hallway. And there's an open sort of lounge space where kids are sitting on poofs and other soft furniture.

KAMENETZ: We walk up to two kids sprawled out in the hallway working on an assignment. Their names are Damion Albert and Robert Parker. And they're in sixth grade.

DAMION ALBERT: Mostly I'm out here because it's hot in our classrooms. Our class is so noisy.

ROBERT PARKER: A lot of distractions.

LANGE: Do you guys distract each other?


KAMENETZ: How come?

ROBERT: We're best friends.

LANGE: There was definitely a feeling, at a certain point, that those fixed rows of desks were not the way to get kids to learn - not the way to get kids to be creative.

KAMENETZ: In the experimental 1970s, this idea was taken to the limit. Schools were built without interior walls at all. They were called open plan. And they were groovy but too loud. OK, let's get up to 2018. It's an era rich in creativity even if it's not rich in investments. Orlando Garcia teaches 10th-grade English.

ORLANDO GARCIA: So out of "Fahrenheit 451," they discuss the perils of inadequate school systems. So then they look at the problems within their current school system, identify those problems and then research solutions.

LANGE: He says one year the kids came up with the idea of putting tennis balls in the feet of the desks and chairs. So now his class sounds like this...


KAMENETZ: ...Instead of this.


GARCIA: Why do teachers always have desks in traditional formations? It's because getting them into those nontraditional formations sometimes takes time and-or getting a class back together after the noise disruption takes time out of the classroom instruction.

LANGE: Sometimes you can just buy what you need to solve this problem, but that's not possible for a public school. And so the tennis balls are actually a great hack.

KAMENETZ: They're not as beautiful as the WPA mural in the lobby. But they are useful and another way the students have made this 90-year-old space their own. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.