Co.Design

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.”

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25 Comments

  • Liz

    "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."  Maybe the teachers at that school are better at being teachers than you?

    That said, other open floorplan schools have ended up building walls because teachers trained to typical models of classroom management couldn't use the space effectively. It'll be interesting to see what teacher-training information comes out of this school.

  • hadley fierlinger

    I currently have 2 children in a Public Montessori School in New Zealand (free!). The Montessori environment (which is similar to the Freedom School) works well because many of the right ingredients are in place. Mixed aged classrooms, independent learning, freedom within limits and personal responsibility. We have a handful of children with ADHD, Dyslexic and Aspergers and amazingly, these children blossom because the teacher allows them to work the way they need to (which may mean working alone outside, in the library or with a well chosen buddy).  Many parents wonder how my children can be getting a good education in Montessori because their children would be distracted all day and never get any work done. But the Montessori "teacher" is well trained differently to the traditional teacher and if you sit in on a Montessori class it is not uncommon to see 30 mixed age children quietly working, collaborating in small groups, teaching lessons to other children or working alone. As a skeptical parent from a traditional school background, I have often worried about the crowded classroom, low teacher to child ratio, tired classroom materials etc and whenever I mention this to my kids they convince me that they LOVE it just the way its and I realize they have leaned something that many adults could stand to learn: Flexibility. Which will take them far indeed.

  • Joe Carolino

    Everything looks great! As I am reading the responses there is some worry on structure and I think its good to think about but... from what I can see on the website and reading more this isn't a complete free for all. There is some structure so its not completely negating the idea of structure. Personally I have gained most of my structural life skills from my teenage retail jobs and internships, plus the idea of deadlines. Are deadlines enough of a structured system to follow? As professionals our main goal is to complete tasks on specific deadlines, if its a meeting, handful of sketches, final product, web live, print ready, etc... It will definitely be interesting to see how these young students do when they become adults. Until then we really cant quantify this as right or wrong. Its darn beautiful thats for sure and I would love to teach or go back into time to be taught there. 

  • quikboy

    The design looks cool, but what's with all the expensive laptops? These are kids. It's not like their computing needs require pricey Macbooks, nor are they ideal for children who tend to be clumsy sometimes. Such money could be used to fund other things, instead of keeping taxes inflated so high in Sweden.

  • Rogier Gregoire

     The two telling criticisms that made me consider the real value of this approach to instruction. The first is the reviewer's interest in punishment with no walls to put the disruptive students against. and the sitting arrangements that promote cheating.
    Neither concern applies to the approach that the program encourages.  students are encourage to share and work collaboratively and not deal with a curriculum based on experience i.e. outside the walls of the typical classroom.
    More peer driven learning and above all a curriculum based on student experience rather than on a curriculum driven by virtual rather than visceral experiences.  

    It seems unbearable arrogant to criticize the Swedish system from a politically conservative American point of view which is at best trivial in both expertise and outcomes

  • Alexxander

    So when kids grow up in the free environment, what happens when they get into a world where there is more structure? Will business workplaces catch up to them? I know some work environmment designs are challenging how and where we work, but what are we saying about structure? Is structure so bad? Or is it OK to just work how we want, when we want and in whatever place we want? I wonder what the workplace will look like in 10-20 years because of how schools like this are challenging societal structure from the ground up....

  • Marina Bridger

    Really true. I'd love my child to learn there. But structure of our society is not ready for that free style. In a way it could be a stress for those kids to enter the world with strict rules and "standart" way of education. I guess they'll need some kind of adaptation classes at the end

  • superbaxter21

    I actually went to a school without walls for middle school in the early 70's ('72-'76) in Rochester NY, and was part of the first class to graduate from French Road Middle School.  French Road was a middle school then and part of Brighton School District - which is ranked nationally in the top 2o best high schools in America.

    It was pretty interesting - there were walled areas for science labs, language classes, gymnasium, a few for Home Ed., art, and industrial arts which were very open-space in design with different group working ares.
    Some kids, like my best friend whio is a graphic designer - didn;t fare so well with the open lay-out plan as she has ADD - and she got a transfer to the other middle school with traditional wall / class-room structure.
    We had rolling storage cabinets that acted as dividers of a sort between teaching areas.
    An Creative Writing English class I had in 8th grade was off to a low-traffic area of the opn-plan library.  I loved the class, and even did a an extra-curricular project, writing a childrens's book!
    I personally liked the openess, although sometimes one could hear what was going on in another class perhaps a bit too much.  The upside was - I really learned how to focus - intently.  And so, in college - I could even write papers while at a noisy hustle & bustle college restaurant / bar!

    Not really sure why, but Brighton School District later disbanded the open school plan, and the school is now an elementary school in the more traditional manner.

    It would be interesting to see how the kids who went through French Road Middle School did later on scholatically and professionally?!
    I think it fostered a creative learning environment and openess that encouraged learning, team-work, and fun atmosphere that made learning 'fun'!
    I went to a private school for high school with a traditional curriculum and small classes - emphasis on writing and thinking. Graduated from Colgate University with a B.A. in French Literature and American History. Later went on to get my M.A. in Advertsing / Communications from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public.Communications.  Being in the advertising / PR business - it goes without saying that creative thinking is important - maybe my earlier schooling fostered soem of that?  Who knows?!  But it definitely helped with the ability to 'laser-focus'!.  

    P.S.: One of my old school friends who also went through French Road School without Walls 'experiment 'and then Brighton High School, also went to Colgate - later graduating from NYU Law School. She practices law down in Atlanta.

  • kylehayes

    The open workplace model makes its way to the classroom! I will be interested to see how this works. 

  • John Amalfi

    I suggest you have one person commenting, who has hit the nail (sweetly) on the head, James Briano, "The entire teaching paradigm must change in order for this to succeed".

  • Margaret Vugrin

    yep we had this in the 80s for my no. 3 and 4 kids...didnt last long...only the library is now left in the open space surrounded by walls

  • Allegro13

    We were subjected to an "Open School" in Gainesville, Florida in the 1970's and it was an unmitigated disaster.  No one learned anything because of the over-the-top noise level all day long.  And no kid would sit still and concentrate in the "pits" (amphitheatre-style seating with the teacher at the bottom).  The poor teacher was climbing up and down the pits all day long!

    After a year, walls were retry-fitted at great expense.

    Luckily, the system was so disorganized that I was able to simply vanish all day into the "library" and read books of my choosing all day.  No one noticed that I was not in "class"!

  • David N. Hingston

    To the "Guest" who responded to my earlier comment, one obvious example:  The "picnic tables" are singularly unfriendly for a wheelchair user since the center bar at the floor level prevents a child from wheeling underneath to join others at the table.  It also appears that the table could easily--and more sensitively--have been designed without this bar.

    More importantly, in this environment many children with physical challenges would be limited to participating--in your words--"from the bottom."  Other children would have their choice of participating from the top, the bottom, or anywhere in between.  This is exactly the point of universal access:  All children should be presented with the same opportunities and choices.

  • Romey Ritter

    I love this...kids deserve our best...if we want them to grow to be their best. 

    Our educational system in the US ranks somewhere between 27 and 30th in the world...we are pretty low for a nation that claims to be the most powerful and richest and having the greatest universities...reality check....

  • Kdv37

    Nothing new here. It's back to the 60s/70s. Been there done it a long time ago.

  • Larry Doffman

    My daughter went to 70's era elementary school, and it was terrible.  Nice thougth (no walls), but it doesn't work - been there, done that.

  • Simon Field

    It looks like a very interesting place, engaging and all that - but I have to wonder, how much does it all cost?

    I mean, Sweden invests a lot into education, but is this a concept with no proof-of?