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Lessons Learned About Educational Design in Northern Canada

September is back-to-school month, so we’re taking a look at some of the lessons we have learned through our educational design work with Inuit communities.

Building schools in the far north presents unique challenges that require special attention from our design teams. Often, the communities we work with have populations of less than 1,000 inhabitants, so a school project represents an important addition to the area. Schools in remote communities need to serve a dual purpose as educational facilities during the day and community hubs after hours. Delivering an educational facility that can meet the intersectional needs of different stakeholders requires careful listening and sharing to create understanding and acceptance.

Every new Inuit educational project is another opportunity for our team to listen and learn from the individual communities and expand on traditional knowledge of the Arctic region.

A Communal Approach

When our team designed our first Arctic High School project, we quickly discovered that we had an opportunity to explore bigger ideas. Because of the school’s central role for the entire community, we understood we needed to listen carefully to all the people who would use the facility. The main focus was on providing a central common space and cultural area that would bring all the school’s functional areas together.

This design approach drew on traditional building techniques where small Inuit communities were built around a central structure or space. Echoing how the Inuit make their homes across the Arctic, common areas provide spaces for community gatherings. In our recent designs, not only do the Atrium common areas of the schools become a space that students feel belong to them, but they also serve as communal hubs for the community.

Expanding on this approach, today we design gymnasiums, school commons, and multipurpose classrooms in our Northern schools to provide flexible learning spaces for students while keeping in mind that these areas will also function the way a community centre does in larger cities.

Incorporating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ)

In consultation with the community, we learned about the important concept of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), which means “that which Inuit have always known to be true.” IQ embraces all aspects of traditional Inuit culture and is now a guiding principle in our designs in the north, including for our healthcare and justice facilities designs.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) consists of eight principles that influence all aspects of life, including the creation of spaces. Within the guiding principles are four fundamental or core natural laws, called maligait—things that must be followed. These govern how the Inuit connect to one another and the environment. In addition to respecting all living things, working for the common good, and maintaining harmony and balance, our school designs must also plan and prepare for the future.

Designing for the Future

We’ve learned that preparing for the future means drawing on the past. It is not uncommon for elders to teach traditional knowledge to students within the school, but they also need to bring the students out onto the land. These teachings must operate in concert with modern pedagogical requirements. Classrooms, therefore, need to offer maximum flexibility to allow for a variety of educational approaches while also providing a sense of connection to the land and between spaces.

Our school designs aim to connect the buildings to their natural environments. Rather than separating indoors and outdoors with opaque, bulky materials, light and space are welcomed in, while colour and interior materials reflect the facility’s setting. These spaces are opportunities for students, staff, and the community to share knowledge.

Applying What We’ve Learned: Taloyoak High School

Earlier this year, Parkin Architects was appointed to design the new high school in Taloyoak, Nunavut. We will draw on the lessons we’ve learned through earlier educational projects in our portfolio as we move through the design process. Based on community input, we will explore various stakeholders’ goals and objectives for the town and school itself. Through visioning sessions, we will encourage knowledge sharing while also discovering challenges that could be solved through our design.

Rather than insulating students and other users from the outdoors, modern building materials will be used to create a stronger visual connection to the surrounding landscape while maximizing natural light.

The school initially will be located on the edge of the town where it will serve as a basis and central space once phase two of the town development is completed. Drawing on IQ wisdom, the new facility will be built in harmony with its surroundings and eventually serve as a central hub as the town expands. Importantly, the new high school will be a space where traditional and modern knowledge sharing and learning will be delivered.

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