There seems to be this misconception that if we simply build a new school or renovate an existing one, we will somehow find an instant cure for current educational issues, and that we will automatically increase student learning and engagement. State-of-the-art equals what is best for students. Don’t get me wrong, there are definite advantages to working in a new building – aesthetics, accommodation of newer technology and labs, bigger classrooms and joint learning spaces, newer security features, more green space, etc. However, none of the aforementioned elements define a school or make it great – a building whether old or new simply provides a space for possibilities.
So what does make a school great, if not the building itself? A strong school vision, structure, and a cohesive staff. I have had the opportunity to work in both a brand new building (that was part of a school expansion) at the American School of Doha (ASD), and a few schools that were getting on in age, and I can honestly say that the most meaningful and purposeful work that I have ever done was in a building that was very basic, had limited bells and whistles, and could have used a few repairs. The new ASD building did not magically create a cohesive teaching staff or culture, nor did it answer many of the questions teachers had about the school’s purpose and vision. Sure, the students had access to nicer classrooms and learning spaces, but the difference between what and how I taught French as a Second Language (FSL) in my portable classroom while the extension was being built, and what/how I taught in my new learning space remained pretty much the same, and I was still disconnected from all other departments outside of Modern Foreign Languages. There was no direction from the administration prompting change, educationally speaking, and so none occurred. We simply moved what we had been doing to a new location. On the flip side, my time at the Netherlands Inter-community School (NIS) offered a completely different experience. As I mentioned, it was not a school with fancy bells and whistles; however, what we were able to accomplish education-wise for our students in a short span of time through changes effected with the implementation of the Language Framework far exceeded what was accomplished by moving to a new building at ASD. It proved that it isn’t about the workspace; it is about the vision and a clear plan of action, which is what the Language Framework provided. Because the staff had a clear structure within which to work, we came together as a team, we made due with what we had and used our creativity to supplement materials we lacked. Our students made the connections between our classes and became increasingly engaged without state-of-the-art equipment because what they were learning was relevant and made sense.
Am I saying there is never a need to build a new school, or to renovate? Absolutely not. My point is simply this – a pretty building does not solve educational issues, the people in it do.