Does it still make sense to have schools made up of closed classrooms, connected by corridors and classroom settings, with students sitting in rows of desks? Can a solution be found that takes into account what is known today about the tools, methods and means through which children can learn effectively? What does educational research suggest about the characteristics of environments where students should learn to become conscious citizens in tomorrow’s society?

The book, “From the classroom to the learning environment”, edited by the Indire President, Giovanni Biondi, the director of the Indire Technology Area, Samuele Borri, and Leonardo Tosi, the Institute’s head technologist, seeks to answer these questions.

Through the contributions of the Institute’s researchers, who have been studying this field for years, the work documents experiences of excellence both in Italy and abroad, good practices and examples of school environments that have been able to meet the challenges of modernity and propose effective solutions. Within the national framework, which, after such a long time, now offers some significant opportunities to develop “new schools”, a new way of designing environments is proposed: there is no longer a clear separation between those who must design a school (actively) and those who must inhabit it (passively), highlighting instead a participation around a shared idea.

The debate on the characteristics of school environments is not a matter reserved exclusively for technicians or designers, but is, today, a meeting place for different professionals who, in a continuous dialogue on the issues of innovation and the needs of the school community, are looking for a solution that can meet the new needs of school users as well as the demands of society.

Luigi Berlinguer, the former Italian Minister of Education and an attentive observer of innovation processes, highlights the central theme of the functionality of school buildings in the foreword: “If an investment in a school building ends up yielding 30% of its potential because it cannot accommodate a full school day in all its activities, this means that its capacity has not been well exploited. Today, to construct a new school building, just to accommodate activities relating to the transmission of knowledge, means condemning an investment to a partial and substantially negative outcome”.

The same national guidelines for the preschool and first level of schooling curriculum highlight the need for a learning environment that can accommodate and promote student-centred activities: “The social dimension of learning plays a significant role. In this sense, there are many forms of interaction and collaboration that can be introduced (from mutual help to cooperative learning, to peer learning), both within the class and through working groups with students of different classes and ages”.

So the goal is to create a school that can accommodate, and indeed promote, methodological and organisational innovation that many teachers, headteachers and schools are carrying out autonomously or in regional networks. But how do you move from a classroom and corridor model to an environment model in which students and teachers have integrated areas and zones, in which to perform various activities based on the type of content and the tools to be used?

Pioneering headteachers and forward-looking local administrations try to transform and adapt existing buildings into alternative spaces to the so-called “front-facing classroom”, reclaiming unused spaces, corridors, and classrooms which are only used for short periods during the school day. Various educational places are therefore created, with workshops, group spaces, areas for exploration, agora, corners for presentation on a large screen: a variety of integrated and complementary environments in which groups of children alternate to complete their projects, solve problems, discuss their potential solutions, recover ground by working closely with a more experienced partner on a given theme.

In these environments, the hybridisation of languages is one of the main themes, as the pedagogist, Loris Malaguzzi, highlighted. It is no coincidence that the book’s foreword is edited by Tullio Zini, an architect who has been able to interpret Malaguzzi’s “Reggio Children Approach” from the point of view of spaces and his way of putting children at the centre of an environment made up of workshops and multiple modes of expression. It is Zini himself who highlights the inadequacy of the current school paradigm which is unable to accommodate the drives and challenges that society and children are facing: “[…] the school is a living organism that, over time, is enriched and modified by following the pulse of life and its transformations, while the existing school building is made up of a large part of anonymous or ugly buildings, poorly maintained, and in many ways “non-places” that fail to emotionally involve a student, or motivate them”.

A school that looks to the future must be well aware of its past and its tradition in order to reinterpret these in a new perspective, adapted to the new challenges it faces. The book aims to discover the roots of school spaces in Italy in order to offer a new idea of an integrated learning environment in which discipline and exasperated control are replaced by participation and empowerment.

On the one hand, we have the mass undifferentiated school, which fulfilled its objective in an important phase of Italy’s history, as Giovanni Biondi points out in the introduction: “The great educational systems were designed as a ‘company’, with the gigantic objective of ensuring the literacy of an entire nation. In this context, the lesson, that is, the transmission of knowledge by a teacher and the study of the school book, represent the most economical and functional solution to achieve a goal with impressive numbers”. But, Biondi continues: “The first creaks in the system were felt way back in the 1920s, at elementary school, where the system and disciplinary fragmentation were less accentuated. At that time, it was a question of criticism that affected methodologies, but which almost immediately also ended up involving the spaces and the furnishings. What was questioned was the rigidity of the system that required an unnatural adaptation to the space and the time from the student. Freinet, Montessori, Lombardo Radice and the whole movement of activism highlighted, already in the 1920s, how the centrality of the textbook and the lesson were in contrast with the needs of children, as well as the spaces connected to this type of organisation. What was highlighted at the time was, above all, the fact that very young students were asked to adapt to an environment based on immobility and concentration, with benches, pews, chairs and furniture, which demanded unnatural and forced actions”.

The content of the book is developed from this basis, retracing the characteristics and functions of buildings and furnishings for the school from the Unification of Italy up to the current day, characterised by a strong drive for innovation but, at the same time, the presence of a building and bureaucratic heritage that impedes change initiatives. From buildings designed for the regimentation of pupils without distinction, we arrive at the contemporary school, where requests for customisation become absolute priorities. From furnishings designed to demand discipline and immobility from the student, we come to the modern concept of design and the idea of furniture designed for ergonomics and functionality.

The book, “From the classroom to the learning environment”, also contains a broad reference to the “1 + 4 Manifesto for educational spaces in the third millennium”: an Indire proposal to overcome the classroom and corridor model and bring together a project group or a school community in order to discover different solutions that can offer school users environments which are in line with a different way of staying in school and understanding teaching.

The work, finally, presents a rich repertoire of period images and photographs of contemporary environments which are functional to the needs of modern and active teaching and to an idea of a school environment that allows everyone to be accommodated in their different aspects and moments that characterise social life.

“From the classroom to the learning environment”
edited by Giovanni Biondi, Samuele Borri, Leonardo Tosi
Altralinea editions

More info & How to buy

Patrizia Centi

The book traces the stages of Indire’s research on reorganising spaces and times for the contemporary school

Type: Book