School Design Together

This book review later appeared as a book review in the journal Children, Youth and Environments (CYE) and can be found here.

The multi-dimensional nature of schools makes them among the more complex buildings to procure, design, use and maintain. Schools become even more complex when the varied stakeholders collaborate with each other in the processes of financing, designing, building and inhabiting them. School Design Together (Routledge, 2015), edited by Pamela Woolner, advocates for collaboration of educators and architects at all these stages, arguing that collaboration is not only possible but vital for the advancement of both fields and for realizing environments better suited for communities of teachers and learners. Writing from their respective specializations, the authors of this edited volume discuss educational environments from the perspectives of space-makers and users. The book addresses participatory design as the methodology to accomplish collaboration, as the title implies—school design together.

The book’s 10 chapters are organized into two parts. Part 1, The Design and Use of Schools, complicates the school as more than simply a building type composed of classrooms and long corridors, but rather a social and physical space experienced by different people. The chapter by Peter Blundell Jones gives an overview of school buildings’ architectural history (mainly English), describing how certain ideas about the building type were historically configured and that some of those concepts have remained while others have been challenged over time. Karl Wall’s chapter is about how the maintenance and organization of educational environments and environmental qualities including light impact learning-related activities. Geraint Franklin, in his chapter, discusses the different governmental programs and construction management practices of building primary schools in the first decade of the twenty-first century in England. Jennifer Singer’s chapter is on the outcomes of the school design panel from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in England, and how good school design is evolved through programs, people and places. In his chapter, Neil Gislason investigates the history of open-plan high schools, whose success or failure depended on staff training in how to teach in non-traditional classroom configurations. The chapters in Part 1 offer a straightforward overview of school design and introduce the different stakeholders and experiences of the school environment.

Part 2, Designing Together for Change in School, examines collaboration through a nuanced understanding of a participatory approach within the context of school design. It also contains chapters on how multiple stakeholders might engage with each other in the process of collaboration. The chapter by Rosie Parnell interprets participatory design as a co-creative process that is both creative and dialogic. The chapter by Adrian Leaman and Roderic Bunn discusses the importance of independent building evaluation studies in order for school managers and architects to understand and build quality and functional environments for different users. Derek Bland’s chapter underscores the power of students’ voices in the design of schools, and the ways that involving children in school design enables the design of child-friendly environments. The chapter by Pamela Woolner and Alison Clark is on participatory approach to the design of school environments, using case studies from the authors’ research projects. The book concludes with a chapter by Jennifer Singer and Pamela Woolner that discusses collaboration and what it entails—challenges and entry points—from the perspectives of an architect (Singer) and education researcher (Woolner).

The collaboration across disciplines and time in school design is not easy, as noted by Pamela Woolner, the editor of School Design Together. However, by situating school design in the literature of participatory approaches with references to key texts by Arnstein (1969) in design and by Hart (1997) in children studies, the book points the reader in the right direction. Furthermore, the book’s evidence-based research material is also useful, and clearly indicates a productive integration of social science research and design practice. Where a glimmer of collaboration really shines in the book is in the last two co-authored chapters wherein the authors weld together their expertise in education and architecture. In general, the book is jargon-free and accessible to educators, policy makers and architects, who the book suggests are key collaborators; however, a few figures, especially the diagrams on participation in school design, could use more explanation.

While the chapters are based mainly on English schools, with a few references to U.S. schools, the book is nonetheless useful and informative for North American readers, where comparisons can be easily drawn. As it is in England, many of the innovative school designs in the United States and Canada often resort to rearranging classrooms and corridors and appending educational technologies. There is a lot to learn about how to collaborate meaningfully, and the lessons covered in the book are a good introduction. This is not a how-to book or design manual, but instead an insightful book that in 212 pages manages to shed light on the complexity of school design, the multiple perspectives of stakeholders, and the uncontestable value of collaboration in order to advance school design and education.

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