Episode 30

Transforming the Landscape of Education

AIA SF Classroom of the Future Competition winner Richard Berliner shares how Berliner Architects is transforming the landscape of education by meeting the myriad challenges facing today’s learning environments and the communities they support. Spoiler alert: the Magic School Bus plays a part.

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The idea of this magic school bus that would take you to the beach or take you to a museum where you're really engaged with what's around you and with the people that are using it and with the learning, is very much firsthand. It's exciting, and it's those kinds of experiences that we try and create in the schools that we design. Richard Berliner, Principal, Berliner Architects


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, this is your host, CCB. And today we're going to have a conversation around, I'm going to say, our collective future, and you'll understand more why I say that as I explain who our guest is and have him introduce himself. We were listening to the AIA San Francisco Classroom of the Future Awards presentation recently, and we heard one of the award winners talking, Richard Berliner, and I'm going to have him introduce himself and explain a little bit about his background before we start our conversation. So welcome, Richard, we're so glad you could join us.

Richard Berliner: [00:00:41] Hey, thank you. Carolyn, I'm really happy to be here. Excited about it. Just a few words about myself. I'm an architect. I've been practicing for several decades, and over the last 20 years we've really been focused on education and innovative learning environments. And that's a big percentage of our work. When the Classroom of the Future Competition was announced by the SFAIA, we were really excited. It seemed like it was right up our alley. It was framed around the COVID pandemic and the impacts it had on school, but it really played into what we think is our strength in terms of where education has been evolving over the last 15, 10 or 20 years, where there's been really dramatic change in how schools are organized, education is delivered, pedagogy, and how as architects we can support that. My background is as an architect, we really become focused, we're located in Los Angeles, in Culver City.

We're an office of about 15 people, and probably about 80 percent of our work is in K through 14 education. The projects that we really get excited about are ones where we're able to run with it and work with educational entrepreneurs, people that are really pushing the envelope in terms of how to deliver education in a way that really serves the needs of children today and also the needs of the workforce in what students need to learn, because that's changed very dramatically. And if anything, the pandemic wasn't an exception, but it accelerated things that were already in place, and we really jumped on that bandwagon with our classroom of the future and the Magic School Bus. And we really integrated the ideas of the Magic School Bus with ideas that we've been working on for many years already.

CCB: [00:02:41] So we loved the comment that was in some publication about you talking about your mission ‘to transform the landscape of education’, and your Magic School Bus in the Classroom of the Future dives right into that landscape. The expansive landscape of what an educational environment might look like. So, tell us a little bit more about the Magic School Bus.

Richard Berliner: [00:03:08] We work with a variety of different clients from the very biggest, LAUSD, to a lot of charter organizations which are very entrepreneurial, and they were all dealing with similar issues of COVID and distancing; how to deliver education remotely or “hybridly” and how we can support that. And the Magic School Bus came from one of our team members, Eric Rutgers, (I did not grow up in the generation of the Magic School Bus, but he did, and many of our staff did.) And it really, left a lasting impression of this transformational space - that you'd leave your home, get on the school bus and it just transforms you to magical places and it's kind of a wonderful place to start. And from there, we built on it, built it on the landscape of Los Angeles, which is full of a lot of magical places, frankly, and how to integrate that into the classroom.

One of the big shifts that we see in education is taking students out of a traditional classroom, moving them into flexible learning environments and really reimagining what classrooms are. They're not four walls with a teacher standing at the front. But it's much more going from a teacher-centric to a student-centric program, where it's about instead of passive learning, listening to a teacher lecture at you, to where you're really engaged with it. And the idea of this magic school bus that would take you to the beach or take you to a museum where you're really engaged with what's around you and with the people that are using it and with the learning, is very much firsthand. It's exciting, and it's those kinds of experiences that we try and create in the schools that we design and also in the programming for students; where they're not rigidly programmed in a very fixed way. But some of their program is in internships, depending on the age of the children, working directly with professionals, and really getting out of the classroom to learn a range of skills that are really very valuable. It's not rote learning, it's not so much how much you know, but it's how you work with other people and how do you use that knowledge in a collaborative way? And this is something that we understand in the workplace has become essential. It's not knowing all the facts, but it's how you work on a team and how you can transform that information.

CCB: [00:05:37] So I was curious about, you mentioned that you were not of the era of the Magic School Bus, but there are members of your staff who have been exposed to the original Magic School Bus, if you will…but your background, your own personal educational background, leaned a little bit more into progressive learning early on. So, would you talk about that a little bit, and then about the organization of your practice, because it would be curious to find out who are those people? What do they bring?

Richard Berliner: [00:06:16] Yeah, I guess my earliest experience was I was a child of the sixties, and I grew up during a very progressive period in education. I actually went to a school without walls or with few walls, and it left a lifelong impression on me. Where today a lot of our work is focused on designing buildings that break down walls, create opportunities for collaborative learning. And really, the excitement for me is working with educational entrepreneurs that really focus on the skills kids will need when they go into the workplace, how often that is about problem solving, collaboration, interaction and work. A real transformational project that we did was with High Tech High. It's an organization that started down in San Diego, really focused on project-based learning, personalized learning. We won another competition, a national competition that we won with Vista High School, again for reimagining personalized learning where students are really freed from the classroom to a large extent. Where they have a very individual program that's really focused on their needs. Even for students that come from situations where they can't go to school a full day, where they're in an underserved community and let's say they need to go, they have an after-school job that they need to go to, where their actual daily schedule can be tailored to that need. There're a lot of students that drop out of high school because they can't attend on a regular basis. And one of the schools that we've worked with here in L.A., Hybrid High School, really is based on that need of meeting either job needs or family care needs. And it's the idea of the spaces that we designed, but also the scheduling and how the students move through their day and the flexibility between the two so that they don't have to be sitting in a classroom all day. That they have that flexibility to move and also engage in internships and other opportunities outside the classroom that really teaches these really essential skills of problem solving and critical thinking and ultimately creativity, which is greatly valued in the workplace as opposed to rote learning and knowing the date of the American Revolution and all those dates.

CCB: [00:08:58] That comes in handy every now and then.

Richard Berliner: [00:09:00] Now and then it comes in handy. But you know, you can look it up on Google.

CCB: [00:09:04] In a nanosecond. I have a master's in History and Google is probably a better friend than my personal archive. Ok, but the other part of that question that I asked you was about your organization, your staff, and you obviously have such great passion for the education environment and education in general. And do you seek out folks that come to you with that intentionally?

Richard Berliner: [00:09:33] Yeah. I mean, our staff is extremely diverse in terms of where people come from. In terms of education, in terms of social and cultural background, race, religion, we really feel that informs the work. Honestly, most of the schools that we design are in underserved communities, and it really helps giving us an insight into who our customers are really, and the challenges that they face. I would say the one thing that ties everybody together in our office is a real passion for this work, a real passion for making a difference in learning environments. We like winning awards from the AIA and that kind of thing, but you know, having a student or a teacher saying that going to a school that we designed was transformational is the best award we could ever win. And we can't claim all the credit for it. Obviously, the teachers and the principal and all that, and the parents and the whole community that lifts kids up. But as much as we can be plugged into that and really express that through the architecture, that's our mission is to facilitate this kind of 21st Century learning, and to express it to the community that you could see here's really something exciting happening, maybe not a magic school bus, but you know, a magic school that really is kind of a beacon in a lot of the communities that we work in.

CCB: [00:11:01] The point that you just made, oh, darn, it just skipped away from me. I had a couple of thoughts going through my mind. One is we at One Workplace, we did work closely with Oracle on dTech High School, and that was another one of those projects that gave us the insight into that intention to create an environment and an experience that will prompt you and prepare you for what work might be. So, the question that I had was really, how do you keep up on the latest, you know, how do you inform yourselves aside from your interaction with your clients, on the latest and greatest and the needs and the opportunities within the education environment?

Richard Berliner: [00:11:53] I didn't mention, you know, one of the ways we really got into doing this work. We were very involved in creative workplace and entertainment workplace where I did a lot of work here in Los Angeles for those kinds of firms. We got involved with an organization called Workforce L.A., where they were taking abandoned metal shops and auto shops that the LAUSD closed for whatever reason because of lack of funding. And they were repurposing these spaces into production studios, editing bays, really kind of career technical education for things that were needed for high school students to give them the skills that they could graduate high school and go to work in the entertainment business. So, there was a real connection between what the needs are in creative workplace and what was being taught in the school, and we still kind of depend on that connection to really understand what's happening out there. You know, now it's all about VR and A.I. and all these other new technologies that inform the workplace, most cutting-edge workplace environments. We try and bring that knowledge back into the schools that we design, whether it be maker spaces or other kind of labs or audiovisual equipment.

You know, because we've all experienced this huge shift in work where you have to show up at work every day for so many hours and you have to be in this place. But work and school are becoming less and less place based. Where it's this hybrid model. And I feel like the Magic School Bus, or this Classroom of the Future really tied into that. Some of the other issues we were dealing with, of course, during COVID was the advantages of learning outside, of being outside a building. We've been designing a lot of outdoor learning environments. Los Angeles is pretty friendly to that, and huge opportunities with so much data that demonstrates students learn better and retain more when they're out in the natural environment. The whole idea of biophilia, biophilic design that really reinforces learning for reasons we understand and don't understand, but there's really hard data that demonstrates that. So that was part of it, and sort of the other parts of the Magic School Bus of the Classroom of the Future was creating a school that really embraced outdoor learning environments where the students could be outside much of the day, either keeping them out of the wind and keeping out of the sun and maybe warming the areas when you need it. But there's not the ideal. It's not that often you have to go inside a building with four walls and air conditioning and heating and lighting and all that and how it ties into sustainability as well as we really embrace this wonderful environment that we live in and plug it in to education.

CCB: [00:14:48] There also is running through the Magic School Bus project, there is this strong sense of community, which I think, there was the ethos of connection and community which you may not have meant as explicit, but it clearly came through. And from that perspective, what's the responsibility of the architect or the designer to make connections to community?

Richard Berliner: [00:15:23] It's huge, I mean, we try all the time. Unfortunately, Los Angeles is pretty “park poor”, especially in certain communities where we work a lot, underserved communities where there's a very low percentage of parks, a school often is one of the few places in a neighborhood that has a big open green field, that has a gym. And we're often working with our clients, trying to set it up in a way that they feel safe sharing their resources with the community. And it's a win-win you know because a school coming into a new neighborhood, especially when we're dealing with charter schools, there’s often opposition because issues of traffic and that kind of thing. But if the school can offer resources to the community like open space, play space, it's a real win for the neighborhood. Often these schools are better than some of the other schools in the neighborhood, so it really helps us overcome some of the resistance to traffic, frankly. I mean, that's probably our number one bugaboo here in Los Angeles is traffic. And whatever we could put out there really makes a difference. One of our other clients, Santa Monica Unified School District, has a policy that all their campuses are open, open to the community. And it is such a component of goodwill with the community that they can share this open space in the city. Often again, schools are one of the few open space resources in much of Los Angeles and it can be shared.

CCB: [00:17:02] And we've had conversations as well about occupancy and what/when is a school occupied and then how can that space be better used or additionally used to justify the physical plant, in one way?

Richard Berliner: [00:17:20] Yeah. I mean, you know, again, going back to issues of sustainability, I mean, if classrooms are used 10 percent of the week, how do you justify that in terms of the cost of building it, of heating and cooling it and all the embodied carbon in it? As much as that space could be utilized in a much higher level. One of the ideas with the Classroom of the Future is that the classrooms we use at a much higher density because of the way they were scheduled. Maybe a class is out on the bus traveling, going to the beach, going to the museum. But there's another class, you know, back at the school using the classroom at the same time. So it's kind of this more complex sharing of facilities and scheduling of facilities, which I think we really have the ability to do now because of programming and scheduling programs. And you can figure that out better than, you know, often very complex scheduling things. You can figure it out.

CCB: [00:18:18] So do you see that in working with your clients, do you see that level of conversation on a regular basis about how the programming is actually going to work and how does the learning curricula and or the...

Richard Berliner: [00:18:34] You know, it varies dramatically.

CCB: [00:18:38] Yeah.

Richard Berliner: [00:18:38] Some of the smaller organizations we work with embrace it much more and are very excited about it and willing to brainstorm and come up with ideas. They have less money, but they have higher ambitions in terms of what they can do with it. Larger organizations, it's more challenging, but there definitely is the will. You know, like LAUSD, there are people at LAUSD who embrace these ideas, and we've had some success in designing spaces that are more about project-based learning and spaces that are have the degree of flexibility and change that has moved the ship forward a little bit. And I know this is a very sincere effort there to do it. I mean, obviously, it's a district of, you know, more than half a million students, and it's

CCB: [00:19:28] The second largest school district in the United States after New York. So you're working with.

Richard Berliner: [00:19:32] Yeah, it's big. Yeah.

CCB: [00:19:35] Yeah, scale. I always want to ask the question, what are you looking at for even beyond where you are today? Do you spend time, you know, thinking about what the next evolution will be? I mean, the Classroom of the Future, you have that. But that still is rooted in, a bit of today, and what does education look like in the future, do you think?

Richard Berliner: [00:20:08] You know, I have to believe that it's all going to be some sort of hybrid model. I don't think we'll go back to a model where students are in the classroom on the same schedule. I think the advances in technology really facilitate some pretty dramatic changes. I think one of the other things we really learned during the pandemic is that being there together, the social and emotional skills of being in the same place together are hugely important to kids, and that's never going to go away. And that's why I don't believe we're just going to stop building schools or places for kids to go. I think that's important for children. I think it's important for adults. But I think there will be again, the sort of continuous continuum of change from a very traditional box to opening the box, making it flexible, connecting it to the outside, connecting it to an open natural environment. I think it's going to keep moving more and more that way, especially as we come under more pressure and responsibility to design sustainable buildings and limit the amount of buildings that we build, and how we reuse buildings or schools or other environments. I don't know if I believe there's going to be like some major break where kids don't go to school anymore, and they stay at home. I honestly don't see that happening. But it's really the integration of technology and flexibility and ultimately connecting kids and teachers more. The more we can connect them and make collaboration more fluid and engage them with the world. Some of the stories you hear of classes Zooming in somebody from across the world to talk to them or having children from different parts of the world talking that left lasting impressions on everybody. I think the ability to connect like

CCB: [00:22:11] We have a ONEder Grant program, which offers $20,000 grants to architectural firms to conduct research in certain areas that will advance their practice. And they share that information as a part of the grant program. And we worked with EHDD here in San Francisco and it was focused on higher education. They were thinking about what it might look like. And one of the big, huge things that came out of it that you were just addressing as well, was education, learning environments are social spaces and they will become more and more social spaces. And there are ways that we can learn, many different ways that we can learn, in that hybrid learning. But the element of social has such a great impact on the learning experience and on personal advancement, personal growth.

Richard Berliner: [00:23:09] Yeah, I think it's spreading, like even the state of California now has embraced the importance of social collaborative spaces. You know, it's all about formulas and how they get funding and how they count those collaborative spaces as usable learning environments they didn't used to. It's not all about the class, the 960 square foot classroom, and that's all that counts now. It's the corridors, it's how you interact, the informal interactions between students and teachers out in the in between spaces. And I think we all kind of understand that it's sort of that informal informality that's so wonderful when whether you're a kid out in the play yard or you're in the office, you know, walking down the hallway and just those random interactions. I think we learn so much from that, especially for kids where they're learning social skills and emotional skills. And it's so critical that they be there in terms of their wellness, their long-term development to be together and learn those skills, which is so important when you really get out in the world.

CCB: [00:24:18] Without a doubt. Ok, I'm going to ask you a question that I wanted to ask because I am a strong believer in, a firm proponent in pro-bono work, and I had read a little bit about the amount of work that your organization has done in the past. And I just wondered what the value you saw in that intrinsic and extrinsically and where that has taken you.

Richard Berliner: [00:24:44] I mentioned Workforce L.A. a while ago, that was our first venture into pro-bono work. And it has led over the last 20 years to where the practice is today. I have to say we learn a lot more, we certainly gain a lot more than we give, but we give as much as we can. But we get to work with people who are so excited and invested in what they're doing, especially in the world of education. We work with Workforce LA, we've recently finished a building with Heart of Los Angeles. And you know, these people are like, so excited about what they do, and it's not about how much money they're making, it's about how much difference they make in their communities. And I think the people in the office here really have that similar passion to really make a difference in the community. We have to be paid. We all have to earn a living, we all have to support ourselves. But I think we as architects, especially working in education, we really have an opportunity to make a huge difference for a lot of people. And pro-bono work is really helpful for organizations trying to kick off a project when they don't have any money. We can help form a vision for them to go out there and reach out for philanthropy, show people this is what we're thinking. Allow them to begin raising money to make it a reality. And I think that's really a critical piece of our work is that we can help them get over that hump, and give it some reality that they can point to something and say,”this is what we're going to do” and help people visualize what they're describing.

CCB: [00:26:26] Well, I think that the nature of your passion in transforming the landscape of education is extremely clear, it's obvious in the way that you communicate. And I think in the project work that you've done. So I just wanted to say on behalf of everyone who's been a recipient of your design and your resources, thank you, because it's a heartwarming story. And it's so important to hear good stories today.

Richard Berliner: [00:27:00] Yes, absolutely. I think there's a lot of good stuff going and as horrible as the COVID has been, I think there have been some things we've certainly all learned and brought us together in new ways, and hopefully make the best of that and keep building upon the good that's come out of all this.

CCB: [00:27:17] Ok, you get a last voice. Anything that you think the audience should hear that we haven't talked about?

Richard Berliner: [00:27:26] I guess I would just go with the same theme. I think there's huge challenges out there right now, but it just, it’s when things are tough that we really have the opportunity to do some wonderful things. And I think a lot of the conventional thinking has been broken in many ways. I mean, who thought that people could work remotely, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 percent of the time and it'll work? So that's changed so much. So it just opens up the world in education and workplace in so many ways for a lot of creative thinking, and how to make that work for all of us.

CCB: [00:28:04] Great. Thank you so much. Richard Berliner. We're just thrilled to have you here on the ONEder podcast. I will say that you can access the ONEder podcast on any of the streaming services, and we will look forward to speaking to our audience again sometime soon. Thank you.