I am always attracted to schools as I travel around, whether in Thailand or in other countries. Why? I guess it is because I wonder what the experience of education is like for the children in the schools.

Travelling in three rural provinces of Southern Thailand recently, I admired the spectacular scenery of the off shore islands and rich tropical forests with limestone peaks jumping out of them. As I passed through larger towns and I noted the high schools, which always seemed to be near the main road and passing between small villages I saw local primary schools, all quiet and , bare of students at this time of the year, because April is the main part of Thai schools’ summer holiday.

Can a passing glance from a car tell one much about what it is like to be a student in any school? Of course it cannot. As I observed these schools, I soon came to realise that they all looked much the same – the large high schools had similar architecture and the design of the smaller schools were all much the same. There were differences in the way the playgrounds were kept and if paint work is used as the standard of judgment, the quality of the maintenance of the buildings. Such observations of schools would also be true in other countries.

The only way to gain an insight into the learning experience of the students who attend a school, is to actually spend some time in the school, in classrooms with teachers and students. External looks can be deceiving – a school which looks a bit run down or looks the same in design as hundreds of other schools, does not really tell one much about the experience of learning that is occurring in the school.

In this month’s edition of SCLThailand our Managing Editor has submitted an article called “The caring classroom” it is about a school in Pakistan. The photographs in that story as well as the commentary, tell us that although the school and the students are very poor, the learning experience in the school is child centred and appears to be a rich experience.

What I am getting at here is related to the theme we have taken up in previous Op Ed commentary. That is the inescapable fact that student – centred learning is strongly dependent on the pedagogical skills of the teachers.

That is not to say that the physical and educational resources of a school are not important, they are important, but the style and quality of the teaching is by far much more important.

This photograph, sent from Pakistan by our Managing Editor, Dr Peter Foley, shows the active involvement of the teacher and the engagement of the students in a school which is not much more than a tent. Please make sure you read the article on the “Caring School”.

Around the world, there are architectural companies that specialize in school design. These companies design some wonderfully innovative schools. Often their work is for wealthier governments and private school owners and developers.

One such architectural company based in Florida, USA which has designed schools around the world in both the economically advanced world and the less economically advanced world, has published a book about their work [The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools by Nair, P., and  Fielding, R., published by DesignShare.com]. The wonderful thing about this book is the first chapter looks at different modes of learning and this says much about the architects’ thinking.

A good example of their conceptual thinking is that in most schools designed by this company, they include what they call the “camp fire space”.

This is the interesting concept of providing a space in the school which is not unlike a campfire. The architects are not suggesting an actual campfire, but a space where teacher and students can gather and do what usually happens around a campfire. They can [metaphorically] gaze at the stars and dream of the way problems can be resolved or the teacher can use the space to provoke student discussion about big and generative questions. The campfire space becomes a  place where curiosity can be encouraged and dreams can be formed.

I don’t think it would be hard to form such “campfire” sites in schools that have not been recently designed. The hard thing is to inspire teachers to use this method of teaching.

Just going back to my comments about traditional looking schools, student centred education is not about architecture or the level of technology, it is about the attitudes and approaches of the teachers and those who lead and support them.  

What do our readers think?

Greg Cairnduff,

Deputy Managing Editor.