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Not Too Cool for a School

How one country used architecture to help boost test scores.


1. Groovy common spaces foster mingling among age groups. 2. Accessible outdoor spaces—for fifteen-minute recesses after every class. 3. Smartly placed windows maximize natural light. (Some classrooms also have glass-hallway walls—the Finns don’t fear distraction.) 4. Ready-made nooks for small-group learning.   

If you wanted to design the ideal public school—the kind that could help vault middling students onto the world’s-best-educated list—it probably wouldn’t look much like the brick-and-cinderblock buildings where most of us spent our bleary youth. Instead, it would look like the schools in Finland, as an exhibit at the Center for Architecture makes clear. Over the past dozen years, Finland has doggedly lifted its educational system from mediocrity to domination—it now places first or second in the world on many rankings. And while that record doesn’t depend on architecture, the way the country designs its schools is part of the story. Instead of shuffling down endless corridors from classroom to sealed-off classroom, kids mingle in airy lobbies and lounges that bring kids of different ages together, instead of segregating them in different wings or floors. After every 45-minute class, students get a 15-minute break, so schools are built to allow easy access to recess areas. Principals and teachers work with architects, who enter anonymous competitions to design the buildings because it’s how a young firm can get its start. The result is schools that often resemble tech companies. Curving glass walls maximize the country’s most precious resource—daylight—and turn hallways into viewing galleries where classrooms and the outdoors are always on display. Finnish pedagogy also gives students a lot of individualized attention, so designers include nooks where a teacher can retreat with a small group. Attention to design detail doesn’t improve test scores by itself, but the Finnish experience suggests that it helps when schools are actually built to support their higher purpose.

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