Aspen Ideas Festival: Arne Duncan, It Is Also About the Building

Many schools in this country are in utter disrepair and the outdated portable classrooms that dot the landscape of the American school system are harmful to the health of our children.
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At the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday Secretary Arne Duncan was under the spotlight on his plans to revamp the education system in America. With $100B in play, there is a lot of opportunity to encourage and support innovative educational reform and there was no denying his passion and eloquence in speaking about pushing the entire system back to being one of the best in the world.

While a small sliver of the pie I felt the most exciting aspect of this far-reaching plan was the $5B being set up to encourage and reward states that are proactively pushing reform. Additionally while I can write about the many, many positive things said what worried me, as someone involved in improving school environments, was his comment that 'it is not about the building'. Sorry Arne, while I agree it is about the children and while teacher performance is important -- it is ALSO about the building.

Many schools in this country are in utter disrepair and the outdated portable classrooms that dot the landscape of the American school system are harmful to the health of our children. (Just a few hundred miles south of Aspen we know schools built with cancer causing chemicals and rodent infestation issues). The simple fact is when you ask those who are affected by their surroundings -- environments do matter. In the 1940s teacher Loris Malaguzzi showed that children learn first through the interaction with the adults in their lives, then with their peers and finally with the environment around them. The environment is, as coined by Malaguzzi, the third teacher. Fifty years on most educators can attest to the fact that when you have a classroom that inspires children learn.

At the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival having just spoken on a session on rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina I was walking with colleagues from Architecture for Humanity when the issue about the state of school facilities came up. Getting all worked up about the increased risks of cancer for children in older portable classrooms, we started talking about an idea of actually involving students and teachers in the design of the classroom of the future. Not willing to wait to get the green light to innovate a coalition of the willing came together to launch the Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom -- An international design competition with one caveat, design teams had to include the end users of the classroom as equal partners in the design process. The goal of this initiative is to serve as a catalyst to build safe, sustainable and smart educational facilities around the world.

This initiative also included an curriculum to bring design and architecture into K-12 schools and hundreds of architects and design firms went into schools around the world to teach the impact of architecture. Additionally a series of webcasts connecting students with architects (from Ghana, Pakistan, UK and US) to talk about the different aspects of how to design. All of this done on a voluntary basis with an aim to design the classroom of the future.

To our surprise more than 1,000 design teams from 65 countries registered. The competition generated hundreds of ideas for building better classrooms around the world -- from upgrading overcrowded urban schools in India to re-imagining smarter, more sustainable portable classrooms here in the United States. The stories from each of these teams are simply amazing. Today, less than 100 miles from where Secretary Duncan spoke, an interdisciplinary jury will select finalists from a pool of the top fifty entries.

Once a winner has been announced (the school receives $50K, the design team $5K) all school designs will be available for viewing and download via the Open Architecture Network. All design are under a creative commons license allowing school districts and non-profits to replicate some of the best ideas and shape the classroom of the future. In the fall an exhibition of the best entries will travel the globe and hopefully a number of classrooms will be built from this initiative.

Arne Duncan repeated a number of times in his talk that is role is to listen and to discover some of the most innovative ideas out there. Within this initiative are thousands of individuals that not only have something to say about the future of schools, they already designed it.

Videos produced by After Ed on two of the hundreds of teams that participated

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