It’s Time to Humanize Education in America

Mark Konchar, Chief Innovation Officer, Balfour Beatty Construction

Public education in America is failing, but it doesn’t have to be this way. What if I told you there is an emerging revolution that stands to transform our failing education system and re-humanize learning for our children to thrive in the 21st century?     
Schools are the second largest investment we make as a country every year.  We have over 100,000 schools in the United States – over half of them are designed for the baby boomer generation and 80 percent of new schools being designed right now are based on the factory model from a different era.  Financially, the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) estimates we have a $46 billion annual shortfall to fix these capital issues. Meanwhile, the digital era speeds past changing the skill sets required to succeed in the future.
For decades politicians have pointed fingers and argued about the best path forward while our students continue losing ground to their peers in developed nations around the world. This not only puts our children’s futures in jeopardy, it also threatens our nation’s ability to succeed in a global economy.      
Most people agree the education system faces serious challenges. The problem has become so profound that it leaves most feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the search for solutions. In general, the education system is stuck attempting to solve new problems with past thinking. Taxpayer money is being spent on schools today, but student engagement and readiness are not improving.

With three kids under the age of 10 and serving design and construction teams at Balfour Beatty, I know first-hand of many talented and passionate educators and advocates who are working in our communities every day to find solutions to these challenges. We’ve been fortunate enough to call many of these leaders our clients, partnering with them to help evolve our model of education and to begin reimagining space, facilities and the best use of limited funds at the local level.
Money spent on the institutional mindset cannot address the needs of the rapidly changing, complex and unpredictable learning environment. The great shift in information technology, advances in learning psychology, changing social demographics, multi-generational distinctions, and funding constraints has created a perfect storm leaving schools, communities and parents struggling to find new answers.
Although the need for a new model is recognized, the traditional structure for addressing these challenges through a system of fragmented stakeholders working in silos has not moved the conversation forward. The time for a new way of thinking about education is now. 
The education challenge is very personal, which is why our team at Balfour Beatty is taking a lead role in helping drive the K12 MindSHIFT initiative. Led by futurist Rex Miller, the MindSHIFT model is based on bringing together a multi-disciplinary team of stakeholders and subject matter experts to a series of summits to dive into the discussion, explore innovative topics, and gain first-hand experience learning from those who are leading change and achieving high-performing results in some of the most unlikely places.
Together with teachers, parents, students, architects and contractors, the K12 MindSHIFT team has spent the last two years looking into what’s working, what’s not working and seeking new ways to solve this problem in our education system. 
So, how does school design and construction fit into the equation? The great shift toward “humanizing” the education machine will require future-ready schools that are designed with the users – students and teachers in this case – in mind. This shift is already impacting some of our most progressive K-12 clients who are faced with decisions on how to design and build learning environments that will maximize engagement, stimulate curiosity and significantly improve long-term student outcomes – all on a confined budget.
New learning models like project-based learning, personalized learning, smaller learning communities, and advanced career and technology centers all require different kinds of learning spaces. The rapid rate of technology innovation is also significantly impacting classroom design, requiring flexibility to adapt to future applications. Beyond technology, classroom flexibility allowing students to participate in experiential learning is also significantly impacting the learning process. 

When it comes to partnering with K-12 education clients, great value can be realized by incorporating design with education in mind. For example in Southern California, our team installed first-of-a-kind, net-zero classroom buildings made from shipping containers for Oak Park Unified School District. Not only did this award-winning project deliver sustainable, money-saving features for the district, it also offers students a unique education tool as each container has a permanent tag indicating the various countries it has visited, which is incorporated into a learning program for the students.
We are energized by the journey we are on with our K12 MindSHIFT partners as we continuously seek solutions to our nation’s education challenges. In the coming months, we will share additional stories about schools around the country that are successfully transforming the model. This fall, we also look forward to sharing with you Rex Miller’s latest book titled Humanizing the Education Machine, which is the culmination of our work on this MindSHIFT initiative. The book will also be co-authored by Brian Cahill who is president of Balfour Beatty’s California Division and a K-12 education market expert.

If you're interested in a copy of the book, drop us a note at: