Chapter Five

Learning Environments


The major changes discussed earlier in the way we educate high school learners will require matching changes in the nature of “school” itself. Today, for almost every learner, school is a specific building to which they report during rigidly set hours to meet in assigned rooms in fixed groupings of same- aged peers. When the school day ends, learners leave the building. Most will regard their learning as done for the day, except for assigned homework.

This rigidity of schedule, and the clear demarcation between learning and the rest of life, needs to change. The key principle underlying this change is flexibility. A more flexible approach to learning will transform schools from tightly scheduled hierarchies into much looser and more mobile groupings of learners. In an education system centred around in-depth projects, learning will spill out beyond the walls of the School, empowering learners to take advantage of learning opportunities wherever and whenever the occasion arises.

In the sections that follow, we will discuss in more detail our vision of greater flexibility in student groupings, in learning spaces, in school schedules, and in out-of-school learning. We also discuss the related issue of the expanded role that schools can play in the broader community, as a cultural focal point and centre for the life-long learning we seek to foster.

Flexibility of Groupings

As outlined in Chapter 3, high school learning should happen mostly in the context of in-depth projects addressing topics of student interest and local community need. Each project offers a unique set of learning opportunities and draw on a unique set of skills and interests. As a result, every project is likely to involve a different collection of students.

Often, these groups will involve learners of different ages and abilities. This allows learners to experience a diversity of roles within the groups they participate in. Sometimes, especially during the early high school years, a learner will follow the lead of others, taking on tasks that support someone else’s plan. At other times, especially later in a learner’s high school career or for topics of particular interest or ability, a student will help lead the group and direct its efforts. This reinforces the useful life lesson that roles change throughout life according to context.

Note that we are directing our proposals specifically at high school education. Thus, “mixed-age” groups will involve students who differ in age by only a few years. Mixed-age groups spanning a wider range of ages, such as 6–18, would pose a much greater challenge, though the benefits could also be great.52 We have not addressed the feasibility and desirability of broadening student working groups to include much younger ages, though this may be a question worth revisiting later, particularly in smaller communities where all ages attend a single school.

In addition to their project-based groups, each learner should be part of a “home group,” a set of same-aged students that, as much as possible, remains together throughout their high school career. These home groups meet at regular intervals to provide a peer group with deeper connections for social support.

In this project-based model of learning, it is no longer relevant to speak of an optimal class size. Groups will be as big as they need to be for a particular project. Some projects, such as operating a school farm, may involve most or all of the learners in the school, with subgroups forming as needed to address particular tasks and questions. Other projects of tighter focus may need only a few learners or, in special circumstances, even just a single individual.

What matters instead of class size is the overall student to teacher ratio. Schools will need to provide an adequate number of teachers and other learning professionals to serve as facilitators and resource providers for every group. As outlined in Chapter 4, these professionals will shift from a “one teacher-one class” deployment to a more flexible system in which, for example, one teacher may provide support in statistical analysis or computer programming for several different projects running concurrently. The details of this flexible support system are likely to vary from school to school. Often, especially in regions where trained teachers are scarce, some of these resource needs may be drawn from others in the community. As a result, we cannot specify whether this model of learning will require more, fewer, or a roughly similar number of adults compared to the present system.

Flexibility of Schedule

As students meet in different and often-changing groups to pursue their studies, they will find it helpful to adopt flexible schedules, as well. Without fixed, formalized classes, schools will no longer have rigid timetables in which students all move from class to class at the same time for short blocks. Instead, learners will sometimes need large blocks of time – for example, during construction of apparatus for a project or for visits to off-campus locations – and at other times need only relatively brief meetings for project updates or to answer specific questions. The school schedule should reflect and accommodate this.

Each learner should manage his or her own schedule, booking meetings with appropriate team members and resource persons as needed. This will require a great deal more initiative on the learners’ part, but the art of scheduling should be within the abilities of high school learners – especially where electronic calendars are ubiquitous. Recent graduates are often expected to successfully manage their own schedules once they enter the workforce; having to do the same during their education helps them develop this important life skill.

Although learners’ schedules will become much more flexible, this does not imply that attendance at school should be optional. Learners will simply have more ways of meeting their attendance requirement than they do today, just as employed adult workers may sometimes telecommute or work offsite. Most learners will be physically present at school most of the time during regular school hours, largely because this simplifies the scheduling of meetings and other project work and because many of the key resources, especially teachers and other education professionals, are located at the school. In addition, many valuable elements of education – not just knowledge and skills, but also socialization and lessons in teamwork – are most effectively delivered in that collective setting.

However, project-based learning also allows for other options where appropriate. Under some circumstances, individual learners may choose to work from home, communicating electronically (where resources allow) with teachers and classmates to verify that they are using their time productively – an option that may be especially suited to students with social difficulties or some special needs. At other times, individuals or groups of learners may find it most valuable to leave the school to visit universities, local companies, or other sites that have information and resources needed for their projects, or to take on apprenticeships or internships, as many high school students already do in some jurisdictions. All these options will be encouraged, as long as they enhance the students’ learning opportunities. It will be up to the learners to justify their use of these alternatives, and to demonstrate that they have remained productive while not at school. These off-site options are most likely for older learners; for the youngest in the high school population, the school’s duty of care may require somewhat more direct supervision, except in special cases.

Flexibility of Learning Spaces

Many schools are already moving away from square classrooms with rows of desks and creating more open, flexible learning spaces suitable for newer ways of learning.53 At Ngee Ann Secondary School in Singapore, for example, redesigned classrooms include a mathematical modelling room for hands-on mathematical learning, design rooms with bright colours and striking furnishings, and rooms optimized for discussion and collaborative learning.54

This trend fits well with our model of education. High school learning centred around projects will require spaces for large and small group discussions, individual work spaces, studios for art, construction and scientific experiments, and public spaces for presenting final project reports to larger audiences.

Literature already explores ways in which the physical design of schools can encourage these diverse interactions and enrich educational outcomes.55 We leave the details to these experts and will not discuss their conclusions further here.

As valuable as they can be, however, these physical design changes are not essential to a high-quality education. All of the educational changes we propose can be carried out effectively in a simple, old-fashioned schoolroom, if learners and teachers are willing. Indeed, exploring ways to adapt existing school facilities to new needs may make a productive project for one or more groups of learners. Our approach to education would even work for learners meeting under a tree in the village square, if that is what is available. What matters most is not the building but the learners and teachers who meet there.

Learning Outside School

Many students, especially in wealthy societies, already do a lot of learning outside of school hours and school walls. They watch instructional videos on YouTube, listen to podcasts, browse information-rich sites on the Internet, play educational games, take massive open online courses (MOOCs), or watch television shows such as Mythbusters.

This out-of-school learning is likely to become even more important as education changes. Since learners will spend most of their time on projects investigating areas of interest to them, they should be more engaged and motivated to review information online, seek out instructional material, enroll in online courses, and pursue knowledge outside of school. Some learners may also seek out formal or informal apprenticeships in the wider community.

These out-of-school learning opportunities may be even more important in poorer communities where schools lack the funding to hire enough teachers with strong knowledge backgrounds. In these cases, many schools may opt to bring in virtual teachers, especially for more technical subjects. These may be pre-packaged courses viewed either online or through DVDs or other video material played on a shared computer or television. When this happens, schools will essentially be dividing the teaching role between live teachers providing learning support and individual attention in the classroom and virtual teachers supplying the knowledge base.

The Role of the School in the Community

One of the recurring themes within this Blueprint has been the importance of making high school education relevant to the learners themselves and to the wider community of which they are a part. This relevance is an important reason why we recommend that learning be based largely around projects that address questions of interest to the learners, and it also motivates our call for learners to seek out community members to serve as resources whenever this is useful.

This relevance should flow in the other direction, as well. Teachers should encourage learners to choose topics that matter to their community. Often, projects may focus on some area of local need, and culminate in proposals for addressing that need. Students in PEAS schools in Uganda, for example, run small-scale farms to generate income to make the schools self-sustaining, while participants in the Project H program in California, US have built infrastructure such as public chicken coops, farmers’ market stands, playgrounds, and their own school facilities.56 ,57

Members of the community, and even local governments, may sometimes approach schools with the goal of commissioning projects in areas of need. In some parts of the world, aid organizations and other non-governmental organizations may find that the best way to deliver some services is to partner with high schools to create the high school equivalent of Barefoot College for adult learners.58 Such partnerships would benefit both parties, with NGOs gaining access to local knowledge, experience, and labour, and schools getting connections, resources, and knowledge.

This increasing practical relevance will automatically increase the school’s profile and importance within the community. We encourage schools to take further steps to take on a role as community hubs. Most well-funded schools already have gymnasiums, auditoriums, and other facilities that can be used by the community outside of school hours. Similarly, the community could be encouraged to make use of school libraries and other resources when not in use by students. Conversely, schools can make use of community facilities such as playgrounds, green spaces, and libraries.

Both community and school can, and in many places already do, benefit from going further still, by housing other community resources such as child-care centres, community centres, and community arts facilities into the school space.59


52. Sudbury Valley School.

53. See, for example, the OECD’s Centre for Effective Learning Environments.

54. Ngee Ann Secondary School, 2013. “Future School: Ngee Ann Secondary School.”

55. See, for example, Rudd et al 2006, OECD 2006, Prakash & Nair 2005.

56. PEAS Smartaid Schools in Africa.

57. Project H Design.

58. Barefoot College.

59. American Architectural Foundation, 2006. “Report from the National Summit on School Design: A Resource for Educators and Designers,” p 35

“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”

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