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Can you tell us about your work?
As schools reopen this month, hundreds of students will go to study in school buildings that have changed little over the years. Endless corridors flanked by classrooms, each one crammed with worn benches and desks and adorned only with that sacrosanct blackboard. But for a lick of fresh paint, a mandatory lab and maybe a fan or two, the architecture of most schools has changed little since our grandparents went to school.
“Most of our school buildings resemble an Industrial Age factory production line,” says Prakash Nair, a United States-based Malayali architect and an internationally renowned school design consultant. “This traditional design, what we still see in most schools around the world, is actually called the Ford Model since it was modelled after Henry Ford’s factory’s production unit. It was a workable model for the era when education was more about rote learning, with students proceeding in an assembly-line fashion from one class to another over the years. Learning was passive and the teacher did all the talking while the students did all the listening. Mind you, the driving force of the Ford Model is its efficiency. However, both the input and the output are standard.”
In an age that celebrates the individual, this ‘standardisation’ is hardly in step with the needs of students and also teachers who aim hard at preventing children from becoming another brick in the wall.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Prakash is among a handful of architects who are trying to build schools that break down walls which hamper the innate creativity of children, and turn classrooms into interactive spaces. Gone are the benches, desks, whitewashed walls, and yes, the blackboard too. In its place come groups of children under the supervision of teacher/teachers learning through an interactive process in classrooms that may not necessarily be a rectangular room.
After a stint at University College in the city and later qualifying as an architect from Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University, Hyderabad, Prakash, who also has masters degrees in architecture (University of Illinois, Urbana Champagne) and urban planning (City University of New York) from the U.S., cut his teeth in the field of school design while working as the director of operations for a project to revamp schools for New York City School Authority. It’s arguably the biggest school authority in the world which has around 1.1 million students enrolled in 1,400 schools. Under his tenure, they built 100 new schools and renovated 500 others.
Can you tell us about the school design experience?
“We made a place where students were more comfortable but we didn’t improve graduation rates, student attendance, admissions to college…That’s when I realised that this kind of investment has to look into the overall development of the student. Besides, new research on education was pointing to the fact that how we learn is directly related to the physical design of the learning space. For example, integrating a corridor into the classroom or making it a recreational/performance area has shown that it can vastly improve the dynamics of learning. Every square foot of space on campus has the potential to be an educational space,” says Prakash.
Then did his own experience of going through the rigmarole of a ‘Ford Model’ school in Hyderabad (where he grew up) open his eyes to the importance of new-age designs? (laughs) “Perhaps… Actually the quality of education in India is very good. However, the education system is very selective and very intolerant of failure.”
Keeping these experiences in mind, Prakash co-founded the Minnesota-based architectural firm Fielding Nair International, which specialises in designing and consulting for new-age schools.
The firm has built several such “21st century schools” in over 33 countries such as Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Belgium, Singapore, Canada, the United States, to name a few. In India, his firm designed Plaksha World School, Nagpur, Universal High, Mumbai, Discovery World School, Indore, Pathways World School, Delhi (said to be India’s first wi-fi enabled school), and others in Hyderabad, Gwalior, Bangalore, and Lucknow.
So is this new-age model a practical option in Kerala too? “Of course. As is often the case in India, students succeed in spite of the education system rather than because of the system. Why should we ignore an education system where everyone has the power to succeed rather than some succeed at the expense of others? In fact, the scope for new age schools in India is unlimited because the entire Indian education infrastructure is based on the old model,” says Prakash who co-authored the seminal architecture book The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st century schools.
What were the challenges?
And the challenges? “For one it’s almost impossible to change the system outright because everything is interconnected. For example, the textbook industry is entirely dependent on the existing rote learning system and if we change the system suddenly that would mean loss of millions of jobs. Think of the existing system as an electric car. We know an electric car is one of the only options for future transport and so slowly but steadily the market for such cars is increasing. Likewise, we need to gradually shift focus to a parallel system of education which improves student learning and faculty productivity, and which can eventually replace the old system.”