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In our last article, we discussed how the Ron Clark Academy, Wooranna Park Primary, and Fuji Yochien embrace and have designed environments that are used to fulfill their mission statements and pedagogy.

Here are a few more leaders in this area. 

International School of Hellerup in Copenhagen

The International School of Hellerup has an amazing new building. It’s a school you have to see to believe (you can find indoor photos here). There are few indoor walls that aren’t moveable. Everything in the space is customizable to make places most conducive to learning.

Everything about the schools is designed to meet the age-level needs and challenges of each group. Every age group has a “home” area that the students can design and redesign as needed.

Each home has everything students will need access to - libraries, technology (complete with a tracking system that students use to check-in and check-out so teachers know exactly where they are at all times), and even a kitchen that they use in experiments, baking, and creating meals to share.

There is a massive stairway area in the heart of the building where students congregate to have assemblies, watch films, listen to fellow students offer presentations, and just relax and study.

Every inch of this space is created for in-depth, student-centered learning.

There are no slides, though.

Hellerup makes up for that by holding repelling sessions from the top floor to the bottom, so… there is that.

Casa Sula

Casa Sula has several unique aspects. First, it’s a parent-run school. Many early childhood experts collaborated to form this school in the rainforest for their children. Secondly, children are in charge of their learning and encouraged to pursue their interests (it is a Montessori school). Third, children are given adult tools to use in their explorations.

And that isn’t limited to technology (of which there is very little) or baking supplies. Even the actual tools one would use to build things and materials building would require are available for children.

Adults are at the school, not to dispense knowledge and experience, but to aid in the exploration of each child’s curiosity-driven learning. The results are astounding.

Children build things, care for animals, learn languages (at last count, I think there were six commonly spoken at Casa Sula), and take care of themselves as much as possible and as much as they care to. They are encouraged to be independent, try new things, and learn from making mistakes.

The building and environment lend perfectly to this independent spirit. 

Green School

Green school is serious about immersive environments on a whole different level than anyone else. This school is actually more interested in the environment BEING the classroom. The design is to just … use the already existing environment!

The building is a beautifully built bamboo structure with open spaces and spaces relegated for specific uses. The pedagogy they rely on is environmental sciences and humanitarian outreach.

They have a recycling center for the community.

They are self-sustaining.

They grow food for school meals in their own garden and have grown it enough to actually use it consistently for that purpose (many schools in Asia do this, but it’s worth mentioning again because Americans are far behind in this area and could really do with changing our ways).

So many of their practices are practical and can be used right away no matter where you live or what level you teach.

There is no reason to label roots, stems, and leaves when you have a real plant in a clear container. You see the process happening.

That is what we mean by immersive environments. Handing students the tools they need to solve real-world, practical problems.

And Green School does that. Instead of pre-printed math sheets, they use math to determine how much green onion they’ll need to plant per square foot to meet their cooking needs. They measure and discuss the impact their recycling is having on the community. They use instruments to make music about their lives. They create systems and run small businesses.

The building is one of the many tools students at Green School use to learn about the world around them. It is an extension of themselves.

Østerskov Efterskole 

This is the role-playing high school in Denmark. Although classrooms look fairly traditional in many respects, the school is anything but ordinary.

Students are given a scenario each week to live through. One week, they are on the doomed decks of the Titanic. Another, they are in Medieval Times. The scenarios then define “where” students are, what they will be doing, and what they will be learning.

In this case, the building itself undergoes a few changes, but students imagine it being transformed into different environments. There are many building activities incorporated, though - sometimes they literally build rafts or boats. They may do experiments that involve the “desert” they are surrounded by.

They use technology, real-world skills, and all of this imagination to help them survive (mostly) some pretty harrowing historical realities and some pretty fascinating made-up ones.

Students immersed in a new world each week truly use anything at hand to make their experiences feel authentic, and they embrace learning practical skills as they do so.

Although fancy buildings are nice, any structure can become the Titanic with the right music, lighting, and a little creativity and imagination.

School of the Air

The Australian Outback’s School of the Air has been a leader in education reform because of its own unique two-fold belief:
- first, that children learn best when they are able to be near their own families (and not in a boarding school),
- and second, that “school” is not a building, but children learning wherever they are.

School of the Air didn’t have a building where children met routinely - and still doesn’t. It’s intentionally without walls.

And children have been learning well without them for a very long time.  

One More Time, for the People in Back

Reforming education isn’t about the walls, the building, the chairs, the technology, or the content, but all of these things can be tools for learning. All of those things can be intentionally used to create practical spaces that lend to the pedagogical aspects of learning. Students should be able to use the space as their “third teacher”.

In doing so, we can help them deepen their learning and make it more personal, increasing the value of their education and making it something they own. 

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