The good school
How does the architectural environment change minds, learning and teaching?
In recent times, more and more pioneers in our society have set themselves the goal of changing the education system in Bulgaria. This is an unprecedented moment that holds the potential for an opportunity for real change. In addition, some of these bright people are realizing that the school, not just as content, but also as a building, has a role to play in this general change of course. It has been said that "good" schools have to be created- and that they 'set an example'. But what is a " good school" in the context of architecture and interiors? More importantly: why should a school be analyzed in such terms at all - isn't it primarily about who, what, and how is doing inside?
We, as an architectural studio that has specialized exclusively in educational spaces for the past 8 years, believe that the building, and in particular the environment in which the daily learning community spends the majority of its waking hours, has a huge impact on the learning experience of everyone involved. This influence is often underestimated or even completely ignored.
What does NOT necessarily define a "good school"
It is appropriate to set some important benchmarks to be able to define what a " good school" is, and from here on we will use the term in the context of architecture and interior design. Also, it is a good idea to define what does NOT necessarily make a school "good".
"Shiny" architecture and environment do not necessarily make a school "good". Certainly, the use of modern materials of quality (especially natural ones), new building systems, and modern furnishings can all contribute to an overall architectural image that can easily fool the eye and create the perception that the educational environment both outside and inside is a quality product overall.
The fact that a school building is new also adds to the possibility that one can be fooled into thinking that "new = good". Understandably, newness creates enthusiasm and an overall feeling of hope: isn't it logical that if so much money is being poured into a new educational environment, whether public or private, then it must necessarily be received with praise, without high demands being placed on it? In addition, when that environment is not just new, but 'big' - with well-developed sports facilities, a swimming pool, courtyards, and green spaces, with an extensive canteen - the conclusion that this must be a good building and environment becomes definitive.
A school is also NOT good when it is built quickly. When it comes to the procurement, design, and construction process within the PPA, but also in the private sector, the speed of design and implementation inevitably negatively impacts an educational building.
The logical question then is "What remains the criteria for whether a school building, especially a new one, can be described as 'good'?" It is easy to see and measure qualities such as 'new', 'modern', 'big', and 'fast'. Unfortunately, the answer, in our view, is not so easily visible and requires a deeper insight into the nature of education today, especially a switch to a new model, with radically different requirements globally.
A global switch to a new education model
Logically, the analysis of a building should address its function and the extent to which the environment helps or hinders the occupants in fulfilling it. For example, in our homes the requirements have not changed too much in recent centuries - people still need a place to sleep, to prepare meals and eat, and to gather with loved ones. Yes, some secondary needs have been complemented, such as having a garage, for example, but this is not necessary and has by no means shaken the basic requirements of housing as structure, building, and environment.
By contrast, however, education systems around the world are in dramatic chaos from searches, reforms, the advent of artificial intelligence, and overall uncertainty about how to adequately educate future generations whose professions probably don't even exist today.
The old teacher-centric model of mass education, with the teacher at the center as the sole source of knowledge that is being poured into the heads of students, was appropriate for a bygone era where the goal was to achieve availability and uniformity of basic knowledge; the main "consumers" were the future workers in the factories. A key factor, of course, was the fact that the teacher was effectively the only source of knowledge; no internet, no access to public libraries, not even textbooks to begin with. A ready-made curriculum, basic knowledge, no choice, standardized hours, standardized breaks, discipline, and silence, everyone learning the same thing, no mixing by age, separated into distinct boxes with no connection between them. The first school buildings were devised to respond to this paradigm and physically support it.
This is why, unfortunately, even brand new schools built not only in Bulgaria but around the world are 'stitched up' in the old way and are hampering the efforts and desires of educational communities to make a qualitative leap in terms of learning and teaching. In short: they are not "good" buildings.
To be able to define the architectural principles that are massively lacking in today's school buildings, we must understand more deeply what is different about the DNA of the new educational model.
The new educational paradigm
In Learning by Design, a trio formed by an architect, a designer, and a Harvard education expert defines four major shifts that describe the new global view of educational change:
- For teachers, from "solo" teaching to collaborative teaching teams.
- In pedagogy, from teacher-led to student-led
- In curriculum - from individual subjects to interdisciplinary courses
- In the community - from the classroom to a network of people
Teachers: from solo teaching to collaborative teams. Our primordial notion of teaching is usually associated with the image of a teacher delivering a lesson, standing in front of an entire class, confined to one space (sometimes for an entire day). The classroom, as the building block of the school, has emerged to serve just this kind of teaching scenario, in which each teacher almost "owns" his or her classroom, and consequently, communication with other teachers about teaching is minimized. Nowadays, however, a collaboration between teachers and their ability to share and exchange knowledge and expertise has been isolated in many studies as an effective factor that raises student achievement. One recent manifestation in Bulgaria of this principle is Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), which are increasingly common in our schools, but unfortunately are not yet the norm and are severely limited by various factors - lack of adequate spaces being one of them.
Pedagogy - from teacher-led to student-led. Nowadays, the teacher's role is shifting from being the center of learning: he or she is no longer expected to have all the knowledge to impart to students, but to step into the role of their mentor and guide them as they learn to manage their knowledge, resources, and time to achieve their learning goals. This removes the emphasis from memorizing and reproducing knowledge (and subsequently forgetting it) and focuses on the acquisition of skills that students can use in their professional development. In the new paradigm, it could be said that students are at the center: they need to acquire the ability to learn - not a subject, but learning in general - and in such a way that their natural curiosity and desire to experiment is preserved. The traditional classroom is filled with real physical obstacles for teachers who wish to reverse the model: the teacher's chair, the podium, the "teacher's" board, and the heavy, immovable desks. On a macro level, the entire school building is also not designed in a way that supports this new view but instead is designed primarily with the idea of easy adult control over children in every aspect of their school day.
Curriculum - from individual subjects to interdisciplinary courses. The way the curriculum currently fragments knowledge and teaches it in separate classrooms and separate classes by separate teachers is being increasingly questioned; it does not reflect a reality in which different sciences work in sync with each other, to answer real problems. "Cross-curricular connections", fortunately, is a term that is increasingly heard in Bulgarian schools, especially along the boom of STEM centers and STEM education. On closer inspection, they also have their problems, the main one being the exclusion of the humanities and arts, but the underlying principle of cross-curricular links should still be appreciated. This theme is of course also closely related to collaboration between teachers, without which it would be unthinkable to implement truly project-based interdisciplinary learning. The current learning environment is designed to fit the old model: fragmented knowledge - fragmented classrooms.
Community - from the classroom to the network of people. In this day and age when a vast amount of knowledge is constantly in our back pocket, time in school will need to focus much more on children's communication skills - their social and emotional development as part of a learning community. The current division into classes, which are again mainly determined by classroom boundaries, stops the possibility of communication between different ages of interest. It is not only communication between students that is important. Children's contact with their teachers can be much richer; it is valuable for them to get different perspectives from adults, and this can hardly be done meaningfully in a 10-minute break and the company of 25 other children. Space design can radically support informal communication, which is currently suffocated, controlled, and hierarchical within plans with corridors of boxes, or classrooms.
It is also important to recall that the new educational paradigm is, in fact, not "new" at all. Educational methods such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Socratic discussions and many others have long demonstrated the higher quality of the educational experience, placing the individual child at its center. In Bulgaria, we have also developed valuable models of our own, such as Prof. Georgi Lozanov and the Sendov system and schools developed by Acad. Blagovest Sendov. Despite their undoubted success and international recognition, including by UNESCO, they are not used in any significant way in the mainstream Bulgarian education system today.
Architectural principles for achieving "good" schools
The great drama of today's school buildings, and not just the existing ones, but even many of the newly designed and built ones, is that they continue to hold teachers and students hostage to spaces that have served a bygone era and a bygone understanding of what the end product of quality education is. There are many such examples abroad, and it is no coincidence that they are all in countries or school communities that know critically well what they want from their new educational models. In Bulgaria, unfortunately, there are no school buildings that have been truly, deeply and comprehensively rethought in terms of structure, layout, and environment. Usually, the school community does not even realize the extent to which the built environment 'ties their hands' to teach, learn, and interact in new ways; this is because they have no benchmark.
The diagram, borrowed from the book Learning by Design, illustrates with the red line exactly how the traditionally designed building and environment serve as a barrier to learning and teaching. It is important to mention that neither end of the educational model spectrum is "good" or "bad" and does not suggest that all schools should move entirely to the right; however, even those with the courage and capacity to try would be hindered by the very way their building is organized.
While there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for how a modern school building should look and function to support the new learning goals and methods of school communities, there are some principles that unquestionably help move us closer to the truly "good" school.
Architectural spaces and layout
Each of the following elements in combination with the others is characteristic and vital to the layout of modern school buildings and requires an experienced professional to skillfully combine them:
- A multifunctional gathering space: the heart of the school, with its stage and a direct link to a representative entrance and foyer
- Learning nuclei with living rooms (known in English literature as "breakout areas and commons"
- Corridors designed as places for learning and socializing
- Articulated learning studios as a successor to "classrooms"
- Physical connections and visibility between learning studios and commons
- Spaces for integrated knowledge: maker spaces, labs, theater, arts, learning kitchens, and other NON-classroom spaces
- Teacher areas are distributed throughout the building
- Movement and physical activity areas, woven evenly throughout the building
- Attractive eating area on ground level and in direct connection to the food preparation area
- Schoolyard with meaningfully designed zones including outdoor learning and more green space than asphalt
- Use of school rooftops as outdoor learning terraces where yard space is insufficient
- Rethinking school toilets as self-contained single spaces
- Resizing storage areas, increasing their number, and distributing them evenly throughout the building
The list is not complete, but at the same time represents the minimum requirements for the architectural layout of a "good" school. There is another list of requirements for the environment itself in terms of colors, materials, textures, finishes, acoustics, lighting, furnishings, and equipment, which are again specific to new educational buildings.
By meeting the requirements of both lists, the new school would now secure the title of 'good' school in the full sense of the word. At the same time, however, it should be noted that as it stands it continues to create change only at the micro-local level and to address the educational needs only of its direct users. Its effect stops at the boundary fence of its property.
From a good school to an "model" school
A school building, especially a new one, has much more potential energy than simply ensuring that modern educational models happen freely. An inspired school community combined with a well-designed building has the power to affect the sense of self of entire neighborhoods, the perception of those with special needs, and why not even spur reforms in the Ministry of Education and the education system as a whole. Whether this energy will be translated into actual impact at a higher level depends on several key factors regarding architecture.
The school is the heart of the neighborhood community
In our daily visits to Bulgarian schools, there is often a sense that the school is inaccessible to anyone other than teachers and students. Even parents have often told us that they do not feel welcome.
Given the massive capital investment involved in delivering a new school, or transforming an existing one, the real meaningfulness of the environment: sports areas, workshops, performance spaces and courtyard space would only happen when it is shared with the neighborhood community. For a huge part of the year, school buildings stand empty and unused (all evenings, weekends, holidays, not to mention summer), while at the same time, at a neighborhood level, especially in Bulgaria, the cultural structures and activities that would help children, parents and all those living in the neighborhood feel part of a whole are lacking. The absence of such spaces prompts children en masse to experience shopping malls, for example, as a spatial outlet for their need to spend shared time physically together; this type of socializing needs to be increasingly encouraged, especially today in the age of social media and the omnipresent screens.
Of course, this concept would require a radically different management of the building and its processes. But if this principle is not embedded in the design of the building itself, its subsequent implementation would be so difficult that it is likely to sabotage a good desire to implement it at all. The different flows of people, entrances, and locations of key areas to be 'shared' with the neighborhood community should be foreseen in advance, with the development of a full access control model in parallel with the design.
The other success factor for a building conceived in this way would be a process of co-creation with the neighborhood community that accompanies the design of the building - so-called "participatory design" or "co-creation". This is the only way to ensure that all those involved in the process recognize the school as 'theirs' before it even comes into being, which of course also determines how they will relate to the environment in the future.
Not just accessibility, but universal design - not just for children with SEN, but for everyone
In many people's minds, the accessibility of buildings is limited to having an elevator and a ramp at the entrance. This is only a micro piece of what a truly accessible environment should provide for all building users. The aspiration nowadays is to achieve 'universal design' - a way of designing that ensures that the environment and furniture can be used freely by all people, whether they have physical or other disabilities. In the case of schools, this theme stands out with even greater force and importance.
The number of children with SEN significally increases statistically with each passing year. The approximate number (official published data are not available ) of children with SEN in Bulgaria is 32 000, and of those not in the mainstream education system - 10 000 . And there is an unknown number of children who, due to the lack of a well-functioning methodology, are not diagnosed, as is the case, for example, with children with autism in Bulgaria. Currently, Bulgarian schools are completely unprepared to respond adequately to the specific needs of these children. The psychologist's office is woefully inadequate as an environment suitable for children with SEN.
A new school building should serve as an example of just how well people with learning disabilities, whether on the autism spectrum or with other challenges, can be integrated, and thus take away the stigma associated with their 'difference'. There are a lot of examples of school buildings around the world where every floor has a so-called Snoezelen room - a multi-sensory room that offers complete control over the light, sound, and sensory experience of the people inside. What often goes unappreciated is that when these types of spaces are available, they find themselves continually used by everyone, whether neurotypical or atypical children and adults, because they provide an opportunity to "decompress," center the mind and senses, comfort and focus. Beyond the multisensory rooms themselves, the selection of materials, colors, and finishes of the whole building must be in line with some important rules that allow children with SEN to navigate with ease and not suffer from sensory overstimulation.
The local context - the secret ingredient for a "model school"
A “school for example” must set the bar high because many other schools will try to look up to it and emulate it. The ultimate goal of a model school would be city and national impact, not just local. It aims to influence other schools and inspire educational communities to transform the educational experience of their students. If done really skillfully, such a school could even influence the policies of the Ministry of Education and Culture and drive meaningful reforms, precisely proving by good example what can be realized and what is the added value for users.
However, in order to follow suit, it is very important that other schools recognize its example. We learned this directly from our experience in the Bulgarian context: when at the beginning of our architectural studio we gave examples of a good educational environment and models from Denmark and Finland, the reactions were, to put it mildly, skeptical. No one could imagine such a school environment happening here. We had to go a long way and only through a few completed projects to prove in practice what can happen in Bulgaria as well, to reach the moment when someone exclaimed at one of our projects "Berkovitsa is my Finland!". We learned the hard way that we cannot "smuggle in" a foreign environment and foreign models and expect them to magically work and be accepted.
Similarly, on a macro level, local context is the secret ingredient that can make or break a school's ability to be seen as an example by others and thus truly make meaningful and meaningful change happen. What does it really mean for the local context to activate the concept of the future building?
- The building demonstrates how it can offer a qualitative new distribution even with the existing regulations - both educational and building, (which are often cited as very restrictive) and thus start to fuel new educational practices. A great example of this is the practice "STEM day" in 90.SU.
- The environment should take into account the thinking of Bulgarian parents and their concerns. While in the Netherlands children in kindergartens sleep on blankets on the floor, in the Bulgarian context this is unacceptable. The inherent sensitivity to where children sleep in general is very acute and would rule out universally working models like boarding schools for example.
- The design process should allow feedback from the school community as a whole and especially the parents who are about to send their children to the future school, so that their worldview and expectations towards the environment are taken into account.
A building that is truly in sync and has truly emerged from its local context can surpass even the common Bulgarian complex of inadequacy and the need to "catch up" with the rest of the world and show what we are capable of creating. It is a well-known truth in design that the best solutions are born precisely when the toughest constraints are imposed.
Unexpectedly for an article on architecture, we went through many concepts related to educational models, ways of teaching and learning, methods of co-creation with communities, integration of ALL people, setting goals capable of inspiring reforms at the national level. Maybe it's too much to expect a school building to jump that high? But the truth is that this is the real power of Architecture. Especially when it is combined with meaningful content and processes. The truth is that secretly each of us hopes to be able to be a part of such a project and see how far its effects would go. After all, as Steve Jobs said, “We're here to bend the universe. Otherwise, why would we be here at all?”
 “Learning by Design: Live Play Engage Create”, Prakash Nair, Roni Zimmer Doctori, Dr. Richard F. Elmore, 2020
. The Academic Network of European Disability Experts (ANED). 2018: Country report on the European Semester - Bulgaria, URL: https://www.disability-europe.net/country/bulgaria
. UNICEF. Data on Children with Disabilities in Bulgaria and Around the World. URL: https://www.unicef.org/bulgaria/