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So, You Want to Build a New School?

We were asked a while back for our thoughts about building a new school from scratch. Drawing on his experience in schools and school systems around the world, these are Ian Gilbert's 32 surprising recommendations.

1. Don't call it a school.

Words are important. As Wittgenstein said, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. The engineers who came up with the idea of the ring-pull on a can were looking for a new form of can-opener but if they had called it that that’s what they would have produced – another version of a can-opener. If you start with the concrete idea the word ‘school’ creates then you will not move beyond that. Rather, do like Picasso ‘You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea’.

2. Spend time with children, parents and in the community before you start.

Education is culturally specific. Implanting ideas, even good ones, will either fail or worse, will succeed at the expense of local traditions, local heritage and local culture. And make sure you speak to the children who hate school and the parents who failed school. You will learn more from them.

3. Seek out the constraints; avoid the blank page.

A blank page is too vast and is an unhelpful hindrance to creativity. Constraints (having no resources, using only 140 characters, having no marketing budget…) lead to creativity when viewed the right way. ‘We can’t because…’ becomes ‘We can if…’. More on this in the book A Beautiful Constraint where this quote is found – ‘When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful’.

4. Begin with the end in mind I: work out what the adult will be like and work backwards.

The adult brain matures between the age of 20 and 30. School is a major part in a process that last longer than the school days themselves. A school should have two targets – remembering that it is preparing the adult and utterly forgetting that and focusing on letting children be children.

5. Begin with the end in mind II: describe your school in 100 years time 

If you build a school for today you will produce a generation of unemployed taxi drivers, accountants and hotel owners. And a generation unable to deal with the considerable challenges currently facing the planet from climate change to mass forced migration. Build something that will remain valid, vital and important for 100 years or longer.

6. Employ people not teachers, some of whom may be teachers

If you want a school, employ teachers who know to play the game of school. If you want something different, populate it with different. Anyone with a skill or some knowledge or who simply cares can contribute to the school.

7. Acknowledge and support learning as a 24/7/365 activity

Children do not have to come to school to learn any more. Create something that works where they are and when they are, wherever and when ever that may be all day long and all year round.

8. Create not only life-long learners but also life-long members of the school community

If you see children as simply ‘passing through’ there is no long-term investment. They become ‘This year’s results’ and ‘That year’s school photo’. If you know they will be part of your community all their lives, you will approach them – and they you – differently.

9. Don't focus on academic achievement and leadership 

There are many schools out there who focus on academic achievement above all else, but why and at what cost? There is no evidence that high academic success equates to anything apart from doing well at school. And which wondrous aspects of human potential are overlooked? Similarly, putting leaders on a pedestal means we do not see those with greater potential to implement change, the organisers. See Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals for more on this.

10. Go to a prison and find out what the view on school and schooling is of the people inside

There is a link between school and prison that encompasses social divides, family life, opportunity, inclusion, special needs, society, equality, politics and more. The more we work to understand this, the more we can create schools that break, not perpetuate, the school-prison pipeline.

11. If it is not recyclable, reusable, renewable, local and ethically sourced, don't use it

If they choose to, schools can go zero-waste ('There is no "away",' as they say). Many talk up the importance of being green in lessons on worksheets with instructions on the board in marker pens in buildings with the lights on perpetually between meals that have been shipped from far away. But a change of mindset is possible. As I once heard former Associate Professor Paul Clarke ask a school in Hong Kong, ‘Are you a farm yet?’

12. Build links with local organisations. And not just businesses

There is far more to the local community than the businesses in it. What charities, NGOs, campaigners, artists, craftsmen and women, failed entrepreneurs, self-employed people, unemployed people, sick, dying, heroes and villains are to be found within the school’s community?

13. Use real-world dilemmas as most of the curriculum - local and global

You don’t have to look far to find huge issues – global as well as local - that aren’t going away. By bringing them into the school curriculum you not only highlight the problems and the responsibility young people will have to solve them (or adapt to live with them) you are also making the process of school the real-world, relevant and realistic one that it so often fails to be.

14. Ask unanswerable questions

If we train children to believe that every question has an answer or, worse, that the answer is always at the back of the book, then we are failing to prepare them for a world of complexity, uncertainty and doubt. Check out Sugata Mitra’s work on Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLE) and his Big Questions for more on this or my Thunks.

15. Don’t cover, dig

In the words of Howard Gardner of Harvard’s Project Zero, ‘The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage’. Design a curriculum that digs deep rather than one that covers the greatest ground. And make sure children have the opportunity to dig where they choose to, not just at ‘x’ the teacher marks.

16. Don’t waste time looking to see what is happening elsewhere, unless you want a poor copy of what is happening elsewhere

A new school in this place at this time with these people for this community is a singularly unique combination of elements. Anything borrowed from elsewhere is a nail in the coffin of the opportunity to create something singularly unique.

17. Employ technology to help them learn and be productive.

Learning technologies are there to be used as part of a well-designed curriculum. Why copy off the board when you can photograph it? Why write by hand when you can type and print? Why print when you can email? Why email when you can use Google Docs.

18. Don’t use technology to help them think

‘What does Google say?’ is effectively asking what someone else thinks in order to know what we think. Ban technology when it comes to helping them develop thoughts but use it when it comes to backing up those thoughts. Try the ‘Google Pause’ – spend time with a question before you resort to the internet to find the answer.

19. Have every school member – adult and child - active every day for at least five minutes

With so many health and well-being benefits from being active each day and evidence in schools from projects like Scotland’s The Daily Mile, the school day (and the school building) need to be constructed with regular physical activity in mind.

20. Ensure children get dirty more days than not 

Outdoors, active learning has proven benefits with regard to well-being, health, motivation and learning, with free play proving more effective than structured activity. We are a species that thrives under natural light in natural environments, whatever the weather.

21. Create families, not classes

Families and tribes are about togetherness and inclusion. Classes are often about division and exclusion. Taking care of others within a family group – and having them take care of us – is important. Evidence in schools on Coaching Circles backs this up.

22. Ensure every child and adult is addressed as a human being at the start of each day

Again, working in Coaching Circles each morning means everyone has the opportunity to ‘check in’ as a human being first and foremost – child, teacher, leader, admin staff, site staff. They all join in. There are others ways to achieve this. The important thing is that people know they are people first.

23. The Arts are not extra-curricular

The Arts are not the things you do after school if there is the time, money or inclination. The Arts define us as human beings and reinforce and enhance that humanity. Wherever you look in a curriculum you will find opportunities to integrate artistic endeavour.

24. Education is culture specific. International schools are third culture specific

What we learn, how we learn and what we choose not to learn are linked closely to who and where we are. Schools embedded in their local and national cultures know this. That said, an international school is different animal. Filling a school with wealthy local children and calling it an international school does not make it one. Third culture kids, on the other hand are distinct from the community around them and often from their teachers.

25. Ensure there are living things other than people on site. And that they have names

Put plants in your classrooms and give them names to ensure they are well cared for. Have animals in classrooms but also wandering the school. And remember that all-important question, ‘Are you a farm yet?’.

26. Talk to children and young people about the big issues and ensure they know it is their job to solve them. Especially the ones that can't be solved 

If you don’t talk to them about climate change, religious wars, refugees, race, gender and inequality then perhaps no-one will. Or worse, others will. And remember, these are their problems to solve more than they are ours.

27. Build neither fences nor walls

Schools in Finland are remarkable in that they are open, communal spaces. As soon as you build barriers you break the bond between the school and the community, between the learning that goes on in school and the real life taking place outside.

28. Ensure tables and chairs are optional in many spaces

Tables and chairs imply a certain sort of arrangement when it comes to classrooms, socialising, learning and pedagogy. We are not designed for extensive sitting and there is more to learning than what can take place sitting at a table.

29. Help children feel special, not elite

All of us feel good when we feel special. In a world where so many children go to under-resourced schools or no school at all, going to a great school is an honour and privilege. But having what others do not does not make us better than them. Your qualifications do not define you as a human. Your humanity does.

30. Remember that roots are important 

Knowing and celebrating who we are by knowing and celebrating where we come from and how we got there is an important act. At a time of social upheaval, new family groupings and travel times that shrink the world daily, having at least one foot rooted in our own past can stop us feeling quite so dizzy.

31. Teach the history of the ones who lost

The hidden curriculum dictates that the thinking, preferences and prejudices of the ones who write the curriculum are what comes to be valued and transmitted. There are always more than two sides to every story and having no voice is not the same as having nothing to say. Look beyond the history books for what really happened.

32. Celebrate independent thinking

In a world where many children are punished for thinking and acting independently, instead, celebrate examples of it and encourage it in all children, especially those who think they are doing well at school by simply doing what they’re told. 

What would you add...?[ITL]

To find out more about booking Ian Gilbert for your school, college or organisation call us on 01267 211432 or drop us an email on

About the author

Ian Gilbert

Ian is an award-winning writer, editor, speaker, innovator and the founder of Independent Thinking. He has lived and worked in Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia and is privileged to have such a global view of education and education systems.

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