The Voice for Texas Architecture

“Making use of his own will in his contact with his environment, he (the child) develops his various facilities and thus becomes in a sense his own creator. We should regard this secret effort of the child as something sacred.” —Maria Montessori

In education reform circles, excitement about new approaches to learning that go beyond the standard lecture-and-learn model is peaking. Even the U.S. Department of Education, never the first to board any sort of cutting-edge train, touts a quasi-revolutionary vision of student-led learning: “Transitioning away from seat time, in favor of a structure that creates flexibility, allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning.”

There’s money at stake, too. In 2012, more than $1 billion in venture capital funding flowed to educational technologies that enable such student-directed learning (up from $146 million just a decade earlier). Given the excitement, it would be easy to look at educational strategies that prioritize less seat time, more independence among students, and flexible pacing and be wowed into thinking there’s something fundamentally revolutionary going on. But doing so would betray a misunderstanding of the history of education in the 20th century.

Go back 108 years to Maria Montessori’s first school in Rome. The school embraced, and Montessori popularized, the ideas of self-directed learning, flexible seat-time, and other instructional techniques that have gained new currency in the age of education apps. Under her influence, the ideas spread far and wide. By 1962, those ideas gained a toehold in the greater Houston area when School of the Woods opened its doors in Spring, Texas. Located in the pine forest, the school was named not after the trees, but after Ernest and Hilda Wood, who were among its founders. The couple influenced the institution’s adoption of the Montessori method, including its adherence to multi-age classrooms to foster peer learning, guided choice of work activity among students, and provision of uninterrupted blocks of time in which to do it.

The physical environment of the school reflects the Montessori philosophy. Donna Kacmar, FAIA, of Natalye Appel + Associates says a new high school building, now under construction after a decade of fundraising, follows suit. “We investigated different learning environments and how to connect the architecture to the Montessori curriculum,” she notes. Scheduled for construction this year and designed some years back by Appel + Associates, Architect Works, and James Ray Architects, the structure employs several key design elements to foster independent learning. The community space is at the heart of the program. Fluid and varied, the space is contiguous from the open-air gymnasium through the classroom wing; it continues to the wooded site beyond. Plan and sectional variety support simultaneous and complementary learning activities among students: Performance, gatherings, and group learning can take place while other students engage in individual work, reading, or simply thinking.

Changes in scale and light quality, and attention to materials and acoustics, are all carefully deployed to support learners with multiple intelligences, and to reflect the schools’ educational and philosophical priorities. Seamless indoor-outdoor environments, apparent in clusters of classrooms, patios, and balconies, encourage awareness of the natural world. Daylighting, natural ventilation, and rainwater harvesting are a physical embodiment of school’s environmental agenda. When completed, the new high school structure seeks to embody Maria Montessori’s view of the reciprocal relationship between education and the environment. “Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment,” she wrote. School of the Woods High School is designed to facilitate such experiential learning at its richest.

Ashley Craddock is the guest editor for Texas Architect magazine.

This article is online content for the July/August 2015 issue of Texas Architect.