Thursday, January 10, 2008

When the school is part of the curriculum

As a parent of a young child I'm only now really aware of how little schooling has changed since I was my son's age, a quarter of a century ago. For all the advances in society in that time, there is still the playground, the sand box, the quiet corner and so on. This is nothing surprising - the unchanging state of schooling is something that exercises other edu-bloggers fairly frequently.

In the case of my son's school, one of its strengths is also a weakness; the solid Victorian structures are packed on a very small site, hemmed in on all sides by densely packed housing and in the architecturally sensitive Clifton region of Bristol. While this size means small class numbers and no way the authorities can expand it to capitalise on the strong reputation it has, at the same time the classrooms reflect an approach to education that came into being when the docks down the hill were alive to the sounds of ships from all over the world trading their wares and the paint was still drying on Mr Brunel's fabulous suspension bridge just around the corner. That was a while ago and the city, and society, have changed somewhat.

So this excellent narrated slideshow, showcasing a unique new elementary school in Tachikawa, a city in the sprawl of the Tokyo megalopolis, is really interesting. The very fabric of the building itself is part of the children's education: there are no classrooms, only an open plan interior that extends around the playground; the playground spreads onto the roof, with a slide into the yard and rope ladders from the class areas through skylights set into it; a tap in the yard spills water out across the wooden floor so the children can watch and observe how it runs away.

Japan is a hugely traditional country. Many of its schools (like the one below, in Toba-shi, Mie-ken) were built to short order in the massive urban expansion of the post-war period, seemingly from the same handful of plans. Consequently they look identical and are easily recognised as you ride the trains. The institutional look, as the designers of the new school say, reminds you more of a prison than a place of learning.

In order to be radical the Tachikawa school had to be private to bypass the otherwise restrictive planning regulations. Unfortunately this highlights that, regardless of where you are, genuine originality and innovation in education seem available only to those who can afford it - the rest have to make do with what's always been there.

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