School Without Walls Fosters A Free-Wheeling Theory Of Learning

Look, Ma, no walls!

Sweden loves its experimental education, but here’s a venture that’s far-fetched even by Swedish standards: It’s a school without walls.

That’s right. Vittra Telefonplan, in Stockholm, was designed according to the principles of the Swedish Free School Organization Vittra, an educational consortium that doesn’t believe in classrooms or classes. So instead of endless rows of desks, it’s got neon-green "sitting islands" and whimsical picnic tables, where students and teachers gather. Instead of study hall, it has "Lunch Club," a smattering of cafeteria-style tables on a checkerboard floor for working or eating (or both). And instead of an auditorium, it has a faceted blue amphitheatre that rises up in the middle of the school like a giant floating iceberg. The place resembles a mini amusement park, only with laptops (yes, each student gets his or her own laptop).

Sounds great for the kids, but yikes, I feel sorry for their teachers. There aren’t any walls for them to order naughty little boys to face.

Designer Rosan Bosch points out that Vittra Telefonplan isn’t totally wall-free. "There are both smaller and larger closed rooms for different purposes, such as the sound-isolated Dance Hall for dancing, singing, and exercising, the sound isolated Multimedia Lab for working with film, sound, and music, as well as administrative areas and group rooms," she tells Co.Design. There are also assorted interior decorations and fixtures that cleverly double as partitions, like the "conversation furniture," a towering study nook that’s tall enough to pass for a wall.

That was the trick of designing a "school without walls": It had to be open enough to accommodate the free-wheeling aspects of Vittra’s approach to education (no set classes!). But it also had to include some spatial divisions that could promote different ways of learning—another key part of the Vittra method—such as group work, concentration work, show-and-tell, and so on.

When planning the school, Bosch reached out to both teachers and students. "From the children we learned that there were different types of design that didn’t appeal to them," she says. To wit: Because they work primarily on laptops not blackboards, they like seating arrangements that let them steal a peek at each other’s screens. "We therefore created special furniture that gave them more flexible ways of working side by side and together with their laptops," Bosch says, "For example: spread out on rugspots, sitting side by side on a sitting island or in the organic conversation furniture."

Now, the big question: Does any of this actually help kids get a better education? It’s impossible to know for sure. But as Bosch tells it, "The differentiated spaces allow the children to learn on their own terms, creating different types of learning scenarios. In that way, the design lets the school unfold its potential."