I attended my favorite conference, Educon, this past weekend.  There was an interesting set of sessions talking about design thinking in schools, and how we could re-imagine the way schools and classrooms are designed, so that they would promote the skills we say we value in education- creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

In a session entitled “Where are all the beautiful schools?” it became apparent that while there are many colleges and universities where people actually go to admire the architecture and the temples of learning, very few k-12 institutions  are this way, except maybe a few private schools.  Why is this?

Well, in many places, the same folks who design prisons, hospitals and factories also design schools, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that we get rather institutional-looking schools.  Secondly, the environmental and architectural features that work well for encouraging community and collaboration, such as social spaces, conversation nooks, and the like- these are often discouraged in schools, because we’re worried about noise, or kids having privacy in a public space that might lead to bad choices, or that creating an open campus might actually pose a safety hazard for our kids.

In this discussions after the recent school shootings, our schools locally have instituted new safety measures, including a buzzer system and guard.  I can’t hold the door open for someone behind me, a friendly gesture, because they have to be buzzed in separately.  It’s a small thing, but it is the subtle shift towards looking at everyone as suspicious or a potential threat rather than a member of the community that worries me most.

When teachers complain of lack of parental involvement, perhaps we have to look at the simple things like making the building open and accessible as helping to make it a welcoming space for children and their families.  Maybe we have to look at making schools more like temples of the community than places to store children for 8 hours a day.  Maybe integrating some more public gathering places, large and small, within school buildings is a good thing as well.

Now this openness does carry risks.  But just like free speech means people can say hateful things as well as lovely things to each other, freedom and openness does mean the good things can come with a darker underbelly that’s not always going to be lovely.  I’m not naive enough to believe a study nook could not also be a make-out palace or the Bully’s office, but isn’t it better to crack down on anti-social behavior and promote positive social interactions, than to prohibit any social interactivity at all?

In all of our decisions, we’ve got to stop being fear based.  I understand there are down sides, but what we have to do is enumerate these, accept them as the potential cost of doing business, and try to mitigate their impact on the larger, positive effect.  This is true in any business, or any part of life.  Life involves risk, and it’s time to, as they say, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”  It’s part of the game.

I hope when we look at designing classrooms and schools of the future, we don’t wait long. Let’s hire some great designers to design a school that’s both functional and a temple to learning, where we celebrate the fact we’re raising children to be happy, creative and active people, not veal confined to a small desk or chair 8 or more hours a day.  Let’s inspire our kids and our teachers to reach for the stars, rather than treating them like incarcerated citizens.

We can do better, and even the downside risks are worth it.    What we can’t afford is to further fracture our communities with well-meaning policies that create additional barriers between school and the outside world.  That comes at a price we can no longer afford.