New Schools of Thought
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Danish Kurani is rethinking learning environments with designs that empower educators, inspire learners to achieve, and address academic and social inequalities
Danish Kurani knows firsthand how education can level the playing field. An immigrant of Indian and Pakistani descent, he parlayed his love of Legos into degrees in architecture and urban planning from Rice University and Harvard Graduate School of Design. But Kurani never forgot the lesson he learned during the afternoons spent in the back of his parents’ dry cleaning store, creating buildings from cardboard shirt boxes: “Education is vital to your survival,” he says.
Fast forward, and now it’s Kurani who is trying to ensure all students have a fair chance. His target isn’t curriculum or teacher quality, both of which he says, “brilliant minds are working to reform,” but rather the physical layout of learning environments. “The way we design schools hasn’t changed much in 100 years, even though how educators teach, and students learn has,” he explains.
Traditional lecture-style set-ups remain predominant despite mounting evidence of their lack of effectiveness. Schools, especially in urban areas, stay fortress-like, with high fences and barred windows separating students physically and mentally from their local communities—and the intellectual and social capital that resides there. Atlanta-based Kurani warns that the situation is “a slow-moving crisis…a catastrophe in the making.” But he also sees it as a huge opportunity to flip the script and use learning environments to address academic and social inequalities.
Take Code Next, a 1,500-square-foot programming and engineering space that Kurani worked on with Google. Located in Fruitvale Villiage, a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in Oakland, California, the lab, which opened in 2016, aims to increase diversity in the next generation of tech leaders; it was sparked by the finding that less than 50 percent of minority children had access to computer sciences in school. Through discussions with Google researchers and local nonprofits, Kurani realized that aside from creating a resource for an underserved community, the space would have to address student misperceptions. “There’s a lack of minority role models in the STEM industries and that breeds Imposters’ syndrome in the kids,” he says. “That feeling like the people who do tech are really smart and nothing like us.”
To show that wasn’t the case, Kurani covered the walls with images of tech innovators of every ethnicity. He replaced the traditional classroom style with clusters of small moveable tables, ideal for one-on-one instruction and group work. A maker lab stocked with 3-D printers and laser cutters lets student experiment and learn by doing, with their finished work displayed throughout.
As a result, the students who attend are realizing that “being a computer scientist or engineer is not only attainable, but also cool,” he says. Plus, the greater community has noticed, he adds. “People are stopping by to check it out and get involved.”
Flexible learning spaces
By design, Kurani’s learning environments are adaptable, offering a loose structure that can be changed as needs evolve. The ultimate expression of his approach is the Khan Lab School’s high school in Mountain View, California. As the physical manifestation of Khan Academy, an experimental online learning platform, the building supports the academy’s mission of challenging all assumptions of traditional education. Each classroom in the 6,000-square-foot space has a unique design, encouraging teachers—and pupils—to test different kinds of activities and ways of learning. Nooks and common areas provide opportunities for quiet personal work and lively group discussions; large windows provide views of what’s happening in adjacent rooms, piquing curiosity.
But perhaps most notable is the “communication” aspect, as Kurani calls it: the deliberate places throughout where students and staff can display their work digitally and physically. Thanks to this, information can flow both ways—with classmates learning from one another and colleagues, and visiting educators benefiting from lessons learned.
Kurani tackled a similar mindset at the Manhattan headquarters for Black Girls Code, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching computer science to women of color, ages 7 to 17. Throughout the 3,900-square-foot space, which will open this fall, he created moments that demystify tech, from a faithfully reproduced motherboard—complete with copper circuits that adorns the open ceiling to light fixtures chosen for their exposed wiring. An entire wall is devoted to the components in common electronic items, while an interactive game lets players match products’ facades and insides. The overarching aim of the space, which will be used for workshops, hackathons, and parent/daughter events, is to help the girls develop confidence along with capabilities. “We didn’t want them to feel like tech is this enigmatic thing,” Kurani explains, “but rather something that they can break down, tinker with, and understand.”
“Our schools are places where curriculum, teachers, and technology have to meld together,” he says. “The same way you would choose a different pot to make different meals, our learning environments need to be built to the type of education we’re serving up. That is what architecture should provide.”
Kurani is committed to improving the places where people learn—and doing so affordably. Here’s a selection of products he’s used in his recent projects.
Google Code Next Lab
Muuto: Nerd Counter Stool, available from DWR
Designed by David Geckeler, the stool offers sleek construction with no visible screws.
Poppin: Block Party Lounge Ottoman
The ottoman offers endless arrangements for lunching, laptopping, and lounging.
Khan Lab School
Poppin: Pitch Meeting Chair
This chair features a height-adjustable, swiveling seat that is cushioned for sustained comfort.
VS America: Bench
This bench features linear or curved seating elements that can be combined to form complete landscapes.
Black Girls Code
Industry West: Cap Stool
This stool can also be used as a side table, and is ideal for both indoor and outdoor use.
Emeco: Broom Stacking Chair
This chair by Philippe Starck is made from 75% waste polypropylene and 15% reclaimed wood fiber that would normally be swept into the trash.