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The Lord Kitchener school in Vancouver September 4, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Unorthodox ideas about school architecture are taking root in Canada – again. This fall, three new open concept-style elementary schools will open their doors, each incorporating quirky design elements like garage doors and Olympic-sized classrooms.

These buildings herald either a new era in school design or an unfortunate case of history repeating itself. Their designs either promote collaboration and creative thinking, or distraction and chaos, depending on who you ask.

Similar ideas about school design were popular in the late sixties. It's estimated that – based on U.S. studies – at the peak of the movement, between 1967 and 1969, as many as half of all the schools were open concept.

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By the eighties, though, teachers were improvising their own walls with bookshelves and other furniture. The consensus was that students struggled to maintain focus in a space resembling a giant one-roomed schoolhouse, so most, if not all, of Canada's open-concept schools have since been retrofitted at the expense of taxpayers' dollars.

Back to the past

Thirty years and a digital revolution later, a handful of architecture firms are dusting off old ideas and re-inventing them for a generation of students destined for an Internet-saturated workplace. One U.S.-based firm resurrecting the open-concept model, Fielding Nair International, is touting it as a way to promote critical thinking, collaboration and flexibility amongst students.

To date, Fielding Nair has been involved in designing 400 schools in about 30 countries, and Canada is among the latest to join the list. This fall, three new elementary schools built with Fielding Nair concepts – two in Regina and one in Vancouver – will open their doors. And more are in the works across British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

One of the most unusual of these is Vancouver's Lord Kitchener Elementary. When construction is completed next month, students in kindergarten through Grade 7 will be arranged in five clusters of classrooms. Mechanical garage doors will line one wall of each classroom, opening on to a shared common area. Teachers will share an office, keep only a small workstation rather than a desk and have opportunities to work one-on-one in a designated quiet room with their students while their colleagues watch their classroom from the common area.

The design is meant to minimize hallways and create opportunities for collaboration between students and teachers.

Some of the evidence for this is well-established, others more dubious. The claim that natural light benefits learning is unproven, for example. And the literature is divided over whether windows inspire or distract. But that doesn't worry Lord Kitchener's principal.

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"We're so excited," said Rosemary Love, as she toured the construction site. "This [building] is about enabling teachers to bring out the best in kids."

Do they work?

Indeed, the building is beautiful. If Frank Lloyd Wright built a country home for 400 school-aged children, while working within the confines of a public school budget, it might look a lot like the new Lord Kitchener. Light pours into enormous rooms that flow into one another, the building materials look borrowed from nature and every nook and cranny is filled with a window bench or a bookshelf.

One of the few experts without a vested interest in the concept is Neil Gislason, a Canadian teacher who wrote a PhD thesis and a book, Building Innovation, on the subject. He studied open-concept schools in graduate school because as a teacher, he thought the designs held potential. But he could find very little research to bear that out. So he personally toured some of Fielding Nair's schools in the United States and found mixed results.

"It can work, but the odds of it working are tough," he said.

When teachers embraced the layout and their students were motivated, he found open-concept classrooms did promote the kind of collaboration and engagement they're meant to. But with a distracted or high-needs student population, he found the space invited distraction: With a clear view of the hallway, students waved at friends on their way to a bathroom break, or a teacher would have to stop the lesson when the classroom next door got too noisy.

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The parents' take

Staff and parents were consulted on the design of Lord Kitchener. Some were more enthusiastic about open-concepts designs than others, so architects incorporated a flexibility into the design that enables teachers to create an enclosed space by closing the garage doors on their classrooms. This way they can have some privacy to watch a movie, or write a test for example, but still have access to the larger commons where classrooms come together.

"People have said, 'Open concept was a flop, so why are we going back?'" said Cathy Borritt, who will have two children at the school. But she's glad to see the school moving away from the old "desks-in-a-row" set-up, and believes the classroom arrangement will allow teachers to tailor their teaching more to their students.

Ms. Love said several families opted to enroll their children at other schools after they saw the design.

"Their feeling was, 'This is interesting but we're not there yet,'" she said. "I think they just wanted to wait and see how it works out."

Education ministries, educators and school districts will be doing the same. In these times of education cuts, and squeezed school board budgets, they can't afford to make the same mistake twice.

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