Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Schools Need to Look More Like Offices

I recently had the pleasure of visiting my brother, Zachary Rosenberg, at his law office in downtown Manhattan's Rockefeller Center.  He works for a large firm that currently represents the Madoff victims, among other notable clients.  Besides from feeling a tremendous amount of pride in seeing his goal actualized, viewing his beautiful office, and meeting many of his wonderful co-workers, I was immediately struck by layout of the office.  While the 11th and 17 floors are distinctly more modern, the firm's 9th floor remains cozy and inviting.  The center of the space is actually a "cafeteria" although that is not really the word for it.  It is actually an elegant kitchen with an open and attached area filled with sofas and chairs for people to congregate while eating and share ideas.  There are boardrooms all over and cubicles that are large and open.  Younger associates, like my brother, share offices in many cases, in groups of two.  The overwhelming feeling on this floor is one of openness, dialogue, and increased productivity.

I've noticed the importance of architecture for a while. I remember fondly reading Ayn Rand's Fountainhead during my first year in Israel.  (Yes, I can like her book without agreeing with all that she stands for.)  I agree with her on the notion of man's creative ability being only limited by its imagination and the confines man places on himself.  I've always prefered to visit cities rather than rural areas for precisely that reason.  I like the congestion, I like the noise, and I like the activity.  It makes me feel alive.  I think many people do.  In fact, I was required to take the History of American Architecture at Columbia when I was working on an American Studies degree.  I loved the course enough that I designed my master's thesis around how the architecture of tenements during the turn of the 19th century directly impacted the economic success or failure of immigrants groups living in NYC.

Both Kushner and Noam make the בית מדרש (sort of like a library, but there are tons of long tables for students to learn together and cooperate together in teams of 2 or more) the architectural center of their school.  It's there when you first walk in.  It has both symbolic and practical implications.  It tells the student body that active learning is the central theme of the school, that self discovery is valued, that their voice matters, that cooperation and problem solving are key.  It sends a message that reverberates through the school and carries with the students regardless of where they go.  Practically, it enables students to converse in an open space frequently.  It forces interactions that might otherwise not occur.  It enhances the daily collaboration amongst peers and breaks down a barrier between student and teacher that impedes the learning process.  Instead, the teacher works with the student facilitating the learning, coaching the students, motivating them.

Many offices have had elements of the open floor plan for a while.  SAR takes this concept to an extreme with a completely open school model.  In recent years, I've been told they've put up collapsible walls creating de facto rooms since one large learning space alone became too distracting for most learners and teachers.  I'm not arguing for the SAR open school model.  I'm arguing for a hybrid.  I'm arguing for an office model.  I believe every student needs a "makom Kavoa" set place to call their own.  I want them to value their school building because it will help value school itself.    

Schools need to look like the life students will leave when they go on to the next stage in their lives.  We need to prepare them for careers.  How better than to have them work and play in environments that are modeled after their future jobs?  This idea is not unique or new.  It actually originates from the time when many new schools were build in the 1940's and 50's thanks to growing suburbanization.  At the time, many of our nation's workers were being groomed to go into factory work.  The school with its rigid period, schedule, bell, attendance, tracking, and confined spaces, strict discipline, and clear taylorism inspired model really replicated the reality of the experience students would have once they went off into the work place.   The problem is that today this is not the case.  We simply aren't expecting the majority of our students to go into factory work.  Factories have been shipped out in mass to China and a host of third world nations where they can hire workers for a much lower cost than American's would ever be willing to accept.

My assumption is most of them will be in the sales business in one form or another.  I'm convinced of this.  They will be advertising themselves, marketing themselves, convincing others of their worth as an employee, as a producer, as a creative collaborator   Regardless of their profession, they will need those skills traditionally associated with business.  We all need them.

I've written before about the three zone school with a boardroom, cubicle area, with project room (or Beis Medrash) as center.  It needs to happen.  Private schools might be the first places for this new school to shape, but it needs to trickle down to all schools.  

The current model is actually crippling our children.  It's preparing them for a world that no longer exists, for professions they won't enter.  It's doing more than even this.  It is failing to prepare them for the world they will enter.  The world where they will be competing globally, daily, and with people who because of their less advantaged backgrounds in other nations will be even more motivated to succeed.  We have to act.  We have to do this now.