Typical schools measure student success based on grades and test scores. But on the outskirts of Chennai, India, in a rural area studded with leafy palm trees, a new measure of success is taking shape.
A partnership between a group of forward-thinking entrepreneurs and Kurani, Riverbend is a boarding school designed to nurture something perhaps even more important than academic achievement: personal relationships.
At the school’s core is an insight drawn from the longest-running study on happiness: More than your wealth, job, or fame, the greatest predictor of well-being over a lifetime is the quality of your relationships.
“Good schools are essential for creating strong communities, and community creates happiness,” says Danish Kurani, Kurani’s founder and chief designer.
So, Kurani asked, What’s stopping us from creating a school whose main purpose is cultivating happiness?
In designing Riverbend’s campus, Kurani also considered multiple other factors related to the happiness of Riverbend’s students. Things like mental health, physical activity, and a sense of feeling in control of one’s education were also central to the design.
This is because each of these factors, in their own way, supports students in forming the kind of close relationships that breed happiness. For example, without a focus on mental health, students may not feel as comfortable being vulnerable to open up to other students. Without the freedom to run around, kids won’t properly socialize through play.
Central hallways with attached classrooms would be too confining to help kids feel connected to one another. Straight lines and hard corners would feel too serious to promote free play or activity. Rows of desks facing a blackboard wouldn’t encourage self-guided learning.
Instead, Kurani created a brand-new concept, one that can be followed by any progressive education leader.
The first thing someone might notice about Riverbend is that it’s set up like a small village. That is so students always feel like they are living and studying in a community. There are also virtually no straight lines, to encourage wandering and wayfinding. This freeform design also prompts students to interact with one another, instead of self-isolating in a corner.
The architecture of each building is also designed to maximize a feeling of community: No building is more than two stories, to help the campus feel more intimate.
“Nobody feels warm and fuzzy next to a skyscraper,” Kurani says. “Low-slung buildings make you feel like you’re somewhere safe.”
Other choice details that support well-being: an on-campus farm for students to grow their own food, a zen garden, a lake with a meditation deck, and a slew of learning spaces, such as makerspaces, recording booths, art galleries, and design studios.
These kinds of details support a unique curriculum as well. In addition to learning subjects like history or math, Riverbend students are free to study coding, theater, dance, literature, and many other topics of their choosing.
Together, these details add up to an educational experience most students can only dream of. But based on more than eight decades of research, it’s one that should set any Riverbend student on a path toward a long, happy life.
Khan Lab School
What would a school look like if every teacher and student had the chance to create the future of education? It might look a bit like Khan Lab School.
Nestled in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, Khan Lab School is a futuristic laboratory for both STEM-obsessed students as well as forward-thinking teachers looking to experiment with new forms of pedagogy.
If Khan Academy was Sal Khan’s big idea for transforming education in the digital realm, then Khan Lab School, opened in 2014, is that big idea brought to the physical world. It’s a place run by the innovators of today, designed for the innovators of tomorrow.
Through its partnership with Kurani, Khan Lab School has been able to serve as a cutting-edge model for two groups: educational leaders who want to test out new ways of teaching, and the founders of startup schools who are passionate about building their first-ever campus.
In redesigning its space for the 2017-2018 school year, Khan Lab School’s top priority was enabling experimentation.
The team wanted students and teachers alike to feel like scientists and engineers. Everything needed to be visible, accessible. Spaces needed to be tailored to specific kinds of work, but flexible enough to adapt to changes in technology and teaching styles, as the school was set up to host a rotating roster of teachers.
Too often, schools are built with only today’s vision or technology in mind. As the world evolves, those designs become obsolete, and education starts to suffer.
Kurani’s dual mission: cement Khan Lab School as a progressive and desirable school for local parents and teachers—and, at the same time, avoid future renovation costs with an adaptable design that serves the school decades into the future.
The final design incorporates the best of maker spaces, laboratories, and libraries. The maker spaces and labs feature large windows to offer transparency, in addition to easy-to-read displays that showcase students’ work.
The reading nooks and breakout rooms offer quiet privacy for heads-down work and study. And the common spaces and cafes create chance “collisions” that lead to discussion and new ideas.
Each micro-environment plays an important role in the Lab’s overall design. Having dedicated spaces eliminates the risk that one student’s work becomes another student’s distraction—for instance, two students brainstorming while a third is trying to read nearby.
Instead, Khan Lab School gives students and teachers ample space to test, tinker, reflect, and analyze in whatever environment best suits the desired activity and outcome. The result is greater harmony during the school day, and increased satisfaction from teachers, students, and parents.
“The amount of light and the ability to increase collaboration in the space has enhanced the students’ overall learning experience,” says Megan Burns, the school’s STEM specialist.
With its new design, Khan Lab School isn’t just set up to perform experiments. The school becomes an experiment—one that creates new insights, every day, for improving education.
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Tucked inside Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, in a nondescript mixed-use space of shops and businesses, lies an education center that may hold the key to the future of STEM education.
Code Next, a partnership between Kurani and Google, is a combination maker space and coding lab where Bay-Area students can learn subjects that have historically been inaccessible to them. On any given day, 3D printers whizz and hum, keyboards click clack, and programmable robots crawl on the floor.
“Real engineering goes on here,” says Kurani founder, Danish Kurani. “Most of these kids have never written a line of code before coming to Code Next. It’s demystifying, and fun.”
In the US, less than 40% of Black and Hispanic students go on to attend college. But at Code Next, the rate for the latest class of graduating seniors was over 90%, shining a spotlight on the effects a student’s environment can have—not just on how the space makes them feel, but who it helps them become.
Code Next opened in 2016. Kurani worked with Google’s instructors and met with students to learn more about what kind of space they needed and wanted. Staff expressed a desire for the space to be inspirational. They wanted students to take risks, experiment, and see themselves as innovators.
It also had to be fun. Students needed to feel like they were playing and learning.
“For many students from underrepresented backgrounds, STEM can be scary. Like it’s not for them,” Kurani says. “We needed to create an inviting space where anyone can feel like a builder from day one.”
The final design for Code Next is both an homage to technologists past and present, as well as a working lab for budding engineers and scientists.
Computer science heroes are depicted on the walls, along with the inventions they gave the world. As students walk through the space, they also see the exposed beams, pipes, and wiring, reminding them of the technology embedded throughout.
Similarly, they can also stop to peer into the guts of everyday technology. By seeing how a radio works, for instance, students won’t feel so intimidated by the tech. Maybe they’ll even feel empowered to take apart and rebuild one of their own. These installations support the more basic math and science education they also receive at Code Next.
“I think it really kind of changes the way students think about learning,” says Gracie Elqura, one of Code Next’s community managers. “It’s fun, it’s creative, and there’s a lot of design incorporated into that.”
The results of Code Next speak for themselves: Among the most recent graduating class, 88% are going on to major in a STEM-related field in college. According to Kurani’s own poll, two out of every three students said the space made them feel like they could change the world.
“Spaces like Code Next should give us hope that with the right exposure, early on, kids from any background can fall in love with tech,” Kurani says. “Tomorrow’s most famous tech CEO could walk through these doors at any second.”
Connected Rural Classroom
All around the world, there’s an opportunity gap between two kinds of students, and it has nothing to do with gender, ethnicity, or income level. This gap is between urban students and rural students.
According to 2019 data, 35% of US adults in urban areas held a bachelor’s degree or higher. For rural students, however, that number stood at just 21%. It’s a trend that dates back to the 1960s in the US, and likely far earlier in other parts of the world: If you grow up with limited access to high-quality teachers, you’ll grow up with limited access to opportunity.
“Every student, no matter where they live, deserves a high-quality education that puts life’s full menu of options in front of them,” says Kurani’s founder and chief designer, Danish Kurani. “One way to do that is through technology.”
Together with the nonprofit Ed Farm, the state of Alabama, and Apple, Kurani has designed a prototype classroom to bridge the divide between urban and rural students. It’s called the Connected Rural Classroom. The pilot location will live in Alabama, but leaders anywhere in the world can bring it to their rural area.
The Connected Rural Classroom is a hybrid learning experience, in which top teachers from all over the US beam in, live, to instruct a handful of students at a time. These lessons focus on special topics that the school chooses to offer to a handful of students, and are held in the room’s amphitheater.
During this time, an in-room facilitator keeps the rest of the class engaged across several classroom zones. There are desks for group work, booths for partner activities, and private spaces for heads-down work. When lessons or presentations involve the whole class, the room can be arranged as an auditorium.
All throughout the space, technology helps students and staff stay connected. Beyond the main screen at the head of the class, the classroom comes equipped with iPads that hold the day’s lessons, so students and the facilitator can pick up where they left off the day before.
“This technology isn’t there just to make the room feel fancy,” Kurani says. “It’s to shrink the world, so that students have a close experience with whoever’s beaming in, whether it’s from Oregon or California or Illinois.”
The prototype follows from a major study in China nearly 20 years ago.
In 2004, researchers were able to show that many more rural Chinese students went on to hold professional jobs when their schools were outfitted to broadcast recorded lessons than students whose education was limited to in-person instruction.
The study lasted four years, and at the 10-year mark after the study ended, the “connected” students had completed more years of schooling and earned more money, on average.
The Connected Rural Classroom is designed to go even further, as teachers broadcast live, and can interact with students directly.
In addition, the classroom itself follows the science of learning in its design—for example, with smart lighting set to the exact color temperature of natural daylight, to keep students energized and focused. There are also finger paths students can trace to calm themselves down, noise-dampening materials in the ceiling, and partitions to promote private work.
As a result, the students who live in a town of 1,000 can access the same kind of education as their peers in a city of one million.
“Today’s technology is absolutely capable of bringing a world-class experience to students anywhere,” Kurani says. “This classroom is proof of that.”