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Are Schools Better with Fewer Walls?

Are open-plan schools better for childhood learning? How do you balance the benefits with the likelihood for increased distractions? These are the questions that schools in Finland began to tackle last summer. According to an article by Feargus O’Sullivan on CityLab, “The country is currently undergoing one of the most ambitious school redesign projects in Europe, exchanging traditional...

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Date

March 7, 2018

Are open-plan schools better for childhood learning? How do you balance the benefits with the likelihood for increased distractions? These are the questions that schools in Finland began to tackle last summer. According to an article by Feargus O’Sullivan on CityLab,

“The country is currently undergoing one of the most ambitious school redesign projects in Europe, exchanging traditional walled-in classrooms and rows of desks for more flexible and informal open-plan layouts. Finland is currently going through a wave of school construction and refurbishment, following a new national curriculum introduced last autumn. … All of these new schools—as well as recently refurbished ones—incorporate open-plan principles.”

Despite open concept schools being tested for decades, one of the major reasons they haven’t previous caught on is the high tendency for noise and distraction. An NPR article on the “open schools” of the 1970s discusses exactly that, that these open concept schools led to noise and the construction of makeshift walls. How will these Finnish schools solve this likely problem?

First, they make material choices with soft acoustics in mind, and encourage students to adopt an “inside socks” instead of “inside shoes” policy. But more importantly, they’ve designed flexible schools that manage their programs and can still be divided into smaller spaces and classrooms when needed. According to O’Sullivan,

“There’s more to managing noise than soft floors and sound-absorbent ceilings, however. A school with a broadly open classroom plan doesn’t have to be a vast communal hall. Many new school designs feature curved or elongated footprints so that louder areas for assembly are concentrated at one end. And rather than dispensing with internal walls entirely, they can be used more sparingly so that, say, three classrooms are grouped together behind a wall with a closing door but are divided from each other only by movable partitions.”

By rethinking the architecture of the school as a whole, Finland may revolutionize elementary education. But what about the schools that aren’t undergoing major renovations- are there other ways to reconfigure a classroom? A previous TH!NK by IBI article by Kristin Belz titled “Why are classrooms filled with desks and chairs, all in tidy rows facing the same direction?“ looked at exactly that- ways to modify the classroom to increase student learning, without dramatically reconfiguring the physical space.

 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash