The Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) joined state Superintendent Stan Heffner and the Ohio Department of Education at this week’s Ohio Summit 2.5 to explore the other side of 21st century education: the space, real and virtual, in which a child learns.

OSFC led a session later Thursday following Heffner’s morning address, a collaboration with The Third Teacher project.

“The ‘Third Teacher’ is the physical space in which the child learns,” said commission spokeswoman Sue Meyer, who was joined for the presentation by OSFC Deputy Chief of Planning Melanie Drerup and Planning Director Glenn Rowell.

A program of Cannon Design in Chicago, Third Teacher proposes a revolutionary approach to school architecture that accommodates the blended learning spaces Heffner has called for in Ohio public education. The firm has contributed to deliberations on a 21 century overhaul of OSFC’s Ohio School Design Manual.

Cannon Vice President Christian Long, a longtime educator interested in school design, emerging technology and learning theory, and school architect Trung Le, a firm designer committed to incorporating multiple intelligences and learning styles, partnered with OSFC for an afternoon session drawing administrators, teachers and school planners from districts around the state.

“With an eye on the future of learning,” says Third Teacher, “the multidisciplinary team collaborates with these communities and global thought leaders to formulate systemic strategies for change,” creating 
“pedagogical, technological and social” environments for “agile learners.”

As such, Heffner has urged educators to meet the imminent, real-time demands of students with the virtual world at their fingertips every day.

“We can no longer do architecture the way we used to,” Le told conferees, presenting, for effect, a static overhead projection of a traditional school design with rows of classrooms and desks organized around a lecturing teacher. 

“This is the DNA of 90 percent of learning spaces in the world,” he conceded. “We did this for convenience. We did this so we could replicate, so we could scale up.”

OSFC concurred with his assessment in its summit preview: “We are rethinking and questioning the relevance of learning spaces associated with 19th century pedagogy that fostered conformity, uniformed progression and didactic instruction. Spaces labeled as ‘classrooms’ conjure up the pervasive habits and patterns of teaching with the teacher essentially trapped at the front wall lecturing to straight rows of passively listening students.”

One of the many shortcomings of this model, Le said, is that children haven’t developed the linguistic skills needed to fill in missing words lost in cavernous classrooms.

“We essentially pay no attention to the acoustic values of the spaces we design,” Le said. “When we talk about innovation, there is this sense that it’s going to cost more money. This is a myth we have to destroy.”

OSFC said schools must instead provide teachers and students a “diverse selection of learning spaces” — seminar studios, collaborative research laboratories, collaborative digital media studios, and more.

Outside the session, Drerup acknowledged that if responsive school environments are the Third Teacher, the expanding learning opportunities of the virtual sphere are the “Fourth Teacher.”

“The Fourth Teacher is really the world,” she said.

Meyer said OSFC is moving forward with the kinds of design concepts proposed by Third Teacher.

“Currently our planners are out working with school districts in the planning process to put them in a new direction,” she said. “We’re involved with eTech Ohio on the technology side of things. We provide a technology-rich environment for every one of the schools built through our program.”

She said Reynoldsburg City Schools near Columbus is already moving toward blended learning. It is one of the things that made Superintendent Stephen Dackin so attractive as a recent candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.

Meyer noted, however, that final decisions on school design are still subject to local control. “We suggest, we encourage, and we show models of what is being done around the state and in other parts of the country