By Joe Valerio, FAIA and Randy Mattheis, AIA
Architectural Record gave the new Earl Shapiro Hall of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools several pages in the 2014 January issue. We thought it might be interesting to expand a little on some of the thinking behind the design.
What will schoools be like in the future?
We set out to find answers to this question when we were asked to design (in partnership with FGM Architects) the expansion and renovation of the Laboratory Schools campus. Earl Shapiro Hall, for children in nursery through second grade, is the first phase which opened this fall.
Founded by the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey in 1896, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools was a real world demonstration of Dewey’s “learn by doing” approach to teaching. The design team was challenged to take up the desire for innovation that remains a core characteristic of the Laboratory Schools.
We started with a two-week immersion phase, where we essentially spent our days at the campus observing and participating—everything from riding the bus to prepping lunch—a deep understanding of the school’s culture would provide leverage points for organic innovation. We also looked beyond the school’s walls. We asked our clients to identify “thought leaders” in education and science, people like Roy Pea, the director for the Center of Innovative Learning at Stnaford, Ian Foster, Director of the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago, and Reed Kroloff, the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art. We interviewed each of them for an hour, asking them to try to predict what forces might influence the shape of school learning spaces over the next 10 to 20 years.
“Time and again, when we would start talking, the person would say, ‘I’m really excited to participate in this because everything I do is based on John Dewey’s writings’.”
As we talked about the future of education, one thing that really surprised us was the number of times these thought leaders would refer to the work of John Dewey. Time and again, when we would start talking, the person would say, “I’m really excited to participate in this because everything I do is based on John Dewey’s writings.” That was kind of amazing. Dewey was born in 1859, but his ideas are still considered revolutionary today. Dewey’s concept was that the teacher’s role is not to impose education on children, but to guide them in learning, allowing them to interact with the curriculum and play an active part.
When we started conducting research, we initially thought that emerging technologies would make a big difference in the way that classes were taught in the future. But instead we heard from the teachers and researchers was that technology, if not incorporated carefully, can separate instead of bringing people together. There are a lot of subjects students can learn over the internet quite effectively, but they tend to be subjects which don’t involve creative work. When it comes to very complicated ideas, the direct interaction between teacher and student creates the spark that enables a child to make a leap in learning.
“…we heard from the teachers and researchers was that technology, if not incorporated carefully, can separate instead of bringing people together.”
For example, we had a long conversation about whether there would be printed books in the future or whether they would be superseded by digital readers. At the Laboratory Schools, books are about more than taking in the words; a parent and child, or two students, can read together and interact over a book. The collaboration that’s potentially inherent in that is as important a part of the learning process as the book itself. So although the library at Earl Shapiro Hall does have a computer lab, it also has real books, two storytelling areas, and plenty of places to read together.
The classrooms are filled with day light and provide lots of flexible opportunities for learning activities but in most respects are essentially traditional classrooms. What we found in our study of best practices the opportunity for spontaneous innovation is in the interstitial spaces between classrooms. We incorporated breakout spaces that are shared by two classrooms, which facilitates team teaching and allows students to engage in different activities at the same time. In addition, un-programmed “learning labs” provide a space for teachers and students to engage in ad hoc projects.
Expanding on the idea of facilitating interaction, we created a large gathering space at the building’s entrance. The Laboratory Schools values parent involvement, but none of the existing buildings had adequate space for parents. At Earl Shapiro Hall, the gathering space is day lit on three sides, with an interior gathering space and an exterior one sheltered by the third-floor library, which cantilevers overhead. It was all about creating a crossroads, where everyone involved with teaching at Earl Shapiro Hall could meet and cross paths with parents.
Research shows that providing kids direct access to the outdoors from their classroom is very important. So each classroom on Earl Shapiro Hall’s ground floor—the nursery school and kindergarten classrooms—has easy access to its own outdoor play space as well as to a shared courtyard and learning lab at the building’s center. The second floor, where the first and second grade classrooms are, has a green roof play area blending live plantings and artificial turf. And the third floor has a rooftop play area. So we suggested enclosing the roof top play area in perforated metal, to give it transparency. At the suggestion of some of the teachers, we increased visibility even more by adding five glass inserts to the wall.
Extensive glazing was crucial throughout, in order to bring in plenty of natural light, provide visibility to the community, give students views of the surrounding context. Because of the shape of the site, the long classroom wing faced east and west, which is not the ideal solar orientation. So to block solar heat gain, we developed a series of vertical solar shades spaced at intervals that follow the Fibonacci series, in which the next number in the series is always the sum of the two previous numbers—0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.. The intervals go from five feet to three feet to two feet to one foot, and then the cycle repeats again. The ratio of metal panels within the curtain wall on each floor also follows the Fibonacci sequence.
The Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci first brought this sequence to the attention of Western Europe in 1202 as a way to bridge rational understanding to the seeming irrational forms of nature. So what’s old is new again. Because the school of the future is not about wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch. It’s about embodying the best ideas of the past, present and future—and inviting students to engage with them on their own terms.