Before coming to Virginia Tech (VT) I used to work in a governmental agency in charge of implementing public-private partnerships (P3s) in Puerto Rico. P3s are an option for the government to seek private sector innovation and finance in what typically is publicly procured infrastructure and services. One of the projects in which I worked with was nicknamed “Schools for the 21st Century”. It was an effort to impact academic achievement through the use of infrastructure, providing classrooms that would of promote themselves for collaboration among teachers, motivate student’s creativity, and move the Puerto Rican education system from the industrial age to the creativity age. To bring this project to fruition we needed to interact not only with economists, architects, and other engineers, but with educators.
For years the classrooms were set with desks in rows looking to the front, with the teacher as the source of knowledge. I myself, studied all my life in this type of a setting. With this project we wanted to incorporate different aspects of engineering and architecture that could help teachers teach more effectively. We wanted to incorporate more natural light, studies pointed that having a classroom with more natural light improves the academic performance of students. We separated classrooms with removable walls, allowing the teachers to have separate classrooms for separate classes (let’s say, in one classroom science, in the other art), but giving them the opportunity of opening it and using the space to teach the two sections at the same time (for example; teaching on the Renaissance and Da Vinci, having the opportunity for both teachers to collaborate and teach about science and art.) We wanted to replace the typical chair with a “mini desk” fix into it with desks and chairs that can be configured in different ways to allow for multiple re-configurations of the classroom. The chairs would allow the students to move their backs and not be necessarily in a rigid position during class. These ideas were presented to teachers; some of the interactions with the educators were bittersweet.
Some teachers said they will keep teaching the same way. They said students would become distracted with the clear windows and look outside and that they will not stop moving in the new chairs. They mentioned that they will simply use their classroom how they had been using them in the past. But there was hope; others were exited of the new spaces and possibilities. They mentioned they could implement techniques they had learned in the university, or they had thought of exploring. As Ken Robinson so eloquently expresses in his talk “How to escape education’s Death Valley”, a dessert could look death and without potential, but with the right set of opportunities, just below this deserted surface the seeds of opportunity could bloom.