Fielding Nair International: Learning spaces for the creative age
Fielding Nair International
Sep 26 | 5 minutes read
In the creative and digital age, education must be holistic to ensure learners gain the type of skills most in-demand today, ie. creativity, complex problem-solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, etc.
Schools and universities are no longer producing workers for the factory floor; they are educating the thinkers, doers, innovators and creators of tomorrow. Classroom designs of yore where students, seated in neat rows and columns, are taught how and what to think, have to go.
But what do we put in its place?
Twenty years ago, Prakash Nair set out on a journey to answer this question, a journey he refers to today as his journey of “redemption”.
As the Director of Operations for a school construction programme for the city then, Prakash would often wonder about the impact of the billions of dollars being spent every year to build and renovate schools. He wanted to know about their returns, whether these investments were doing anything to lift educational outcomes.
To his dismay, a cursory check on school performance levels across the country showed him this wasn’t at all true; across every performance measure, there were no improvements observed in schools. Seeing his career go up in smoke, Prakash decided he would find out why.
“Only two conclusions could be drawn from that,” he once told a conference on school design in Australia in 2017. “One, that the environments in which we live and learn make absolutely no difference (to learning outcomes), or two, that we were building the wrong kind of environments for our children.”
Convinced it was the latter, Prakash decided he would do something to prove it. The result of this ambition was born a few years later in 2003 when he co-founded Fielding Nair International (FNI) with friend and business partner Randall Fielding, who is currently the firm’s Chairman.
Today, FNI has gone on to become an award-winning global leader in education planning and architectural design.
As its visionary co-founder, Prakash is still working feverishly on filling the chapters of his redemption story, armed with a simple three-worded philosophy: “task predicts performance”. This mantra, he says, forms the very bedrock of FNI and what the firm aims to achieve.
“It means if you want to be good at something, you have to do it–it’s as simple as that. And we already know the 10 things we want our students to be good at.
“But the traditional school, with the traditional classroom, physically prevents us from developing these specific skills because it was designed for a factory model, where essentially, you just needed people with basic competencies so they could take orders in a factory.
“Today, we’re trying to educate children for a completely different set of skills, yet the classroom design is a vestige of the 19th century. At FNI, what we’re saying is there has to be a correlation between the skills you want students to have and the spaces in which you teach them.”
What Prakash suggests pushes the envelope of tradition and convention not just in teaching and learning but also in building design.
More than that, it combines both disciplines to create an entirely new one, driven by a single, unified objective: to transform education.
The concept that educational reform can be led by challenging antiquated practices in building and classroom design is explored in greater detail in Learning By Design, a book co-authored by Prakash himself, Roni Zimmer Doctori, FNI’s Senior Design Consultant, and Dr Richard Elmore, director of the Doctor in Educational Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
But for any architectural design firm, this is unchartered territory. This is why FNI is the only organisation of its kind to focus on end-to-end design and education solutions alike.
What this means is FNI isn’t just your average architectural services provider–it goes the whole hog, helping its clients plan, design and accomplish everything necessary to reform the entire schooling model.
“Most architects are focused on learning spaces and by and large, it means you’d be designing learning spaces that are going to work for the current curriculum,” Prakash says.
At FNI, however, the design process is taken multiple steps further.
In addition to offering the full suite of architectural and interior design services, the firm helps its clients create a blueprint for change that outlines 12 critical areas of consideration to realise its education vision.
These include desired student outcomes; school learning principles; leadership; organisation/management; standards; assessments; staffing; scheduling; professional development/capacity building; curriculum design; and community and business connections.
The objective is not to build beautiful structures lacking in usability, but to create innovative learning communities that supports student-centered learning. The buildings are simply the vessels within which these communities can thrive.
In them, “classrooms” become agile “learning studios” or “suites”, which are flexible spaces that come in different sizes and seating arrangements, each built to promote collaboration.
Libraries are “curiousity centers”, where students seek information, create or build things and connect with people from other parts of the world.
Prison-like cafeteria settings are turned into modern eateries where students eat, socialise and maybe do some work, much like they would at the local Starbucks.
There are fireplaces, family rooms, high-ceilinged black box theatres, and the list goes on. In FNI’s approach, the limit is how far administrators are willing to go to transform education, using building design as the tool.
“The beauty of all these elements working together is that only then can you get true education transformation, education that looks and feels like it belongs in the 21st century,” Prakash says.
“So yes, we are architects… that is our weapon of choice. But architecture is a means to the larger end, which is to transform education.”
FNI’s repertoire of achievements to date includes working on and with learning institutions from pre-K-12 to middle and high schools and higher education in 49 countries across six continents.
Over US$10 billion worth of school work done has won the firm 11 international awards for planning and design, not just in recognition of quality architecture but in its revolutionary approach to improving student outcomes through its design of modern learning spaces.
Its proprietary industry-leading assessment tool, the Education Facilities Effectiveness Instrument (EFEI), tracks the performance of these learning spaces across 100 individual parameters, ensuring they are delivering on their intended outcomes.
Its global presence means it has individual design studios and partnerships in over four continents, namely in the US, Israel, the UAE, India, Singapore and Australia. It also means FNI’s experts are well equipped with the necessary local knowledge, allowing it to adapt to the educational needs and regulatory requirements of different geographical jurisdictions.
Reforming education systems requires painstaking effort and complex processes that cannot be completed overnight.
But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and Prakash, driven by the philosophy of “task predicts performance”, believes that brick by brick, he will get there.
To join Prakash on this journey, get in touch today.