What A School That Stresses Happiness — Not Test Scores — Will Look Like

Danish Kurani is trying to rethink how we build schools.

Danish Kurani is using architecture to help rebuild education. Riverbend, a boarding school in Chennai, India, is part of a larger movement being by lead architect Danish Kurani, who believes schools need to be rethought and designed for the modern age. Kurani wants to discard the past where every classroom looks the same and everything is connected by hallways.

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When people talk about education reform, often times it's discussed in terms of curriculum development, professional development of teachers, funding and teacher training. Kurani says that checklist is great, but it's incomplete.

"The way I see it is those are all the ingredients needed to prepare an amazing meal we're gonna call education," he told A Plus. "But I think people often forget that the meal has to be put in something. All of those elements have to come together in physical space."

A rendering of a gymnasium for Riverbend. Kurani

Kurani emphasizes that things have gone unchanged for too long. 50 or even 100 years ago, he said, schools looked almost identical as they do now. Hallways, square classrooms, teachers up front at the blackboard, students in rows in their seats. Kurani says those designs were for teaching a workforce that might go on to be a factory worker. Now, he says, we're trying to build innovators, inventors, scientists, programmers, collaborators — and it requires a new look at the classroom.

"Not only should we redesign the environment to be more in line with 21st-century learning and what we are teaching today, but we should not design environments that are so static they are built to last decades," Kurani said. "Let me take a faster, more nimble, more cost-effective approach because we have accepted the fact it needs to change again in five to 10 years."

Riverbend was designed to prioritize students' happiness over test scores. The lauded project will be finished in 2020, and the renderings of what it will look like are something to behold. 

Imagine studying — or meditating — on this pathway.

Kurani

Or playing ball with your friends beneath this ethereal structure.

Kurani

It's hard to imagine a more idyllic-looking school.

Kurani

Kurani's Atlanta-based design firm, which bears his name, is hoping to utilize architecture in the fight for a number of other social issues, too. He named the housing crisis, environmental preservation, access to clean water and food security as issues he believes architecture can help solve. But for now, his firm continues to focus on education.

One of the most important changes Kurani wants to make in schools in simply diversifying how classrooms look and how they function. He compared schools to homes, noting that wherever you live every room has a specific function — you cook in the kitchen, sleep in the bedroom, shower in the bathroom. As a result, those rooms all look different and have different things inside. But in most schools, every room looks the same even when they are supposed to serve different functions and classes.

To respond to that, Kurani-designed schools have classrooms that serve the function of what will happen in that class. If there will be collaborative work or debate, the space will be built to facilitate that. If there needs to be room for things can get messy — spilled paint or carved wood — there will be.

"We're asking educators to fight against their environment," Kurani said. "Given how much they already have on their plate, it seems like we should be helping them out more."

Kurani

So far, Kurani's concepts seem to be catching on. But Kurani spaces have already shown up in New York City, Denver and Boston public schools. He also helped design a Howard University "west campus" at Google's headquarters in California

Kurani does research on how students respond in the environments, and so far, Kurani says, the results have been tremendous. At the innovation lab built for Google, researchers even found minority students expressing a greater sense of belief that they belonged in the tech and science industry than they did in a more typical education setting.

"80 percent say they were confident, encouraged and convinced just by being in a certain physical environment that they can have a career in computer science and tech," Kurani said. "Even just the immediate reaction, you can go look a week later or a month later, and students are saying, 'This is so much better for me, I'm able to do so much more in this space.'"

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