This podcast was sponsored by and has been edited for clarity.


Hi, I’m Dave Swerdlick from Uptown Podcast Studios located Minneapolis.

We have a really special guest today, Randy Fielding of Fielding International.

Randy, tell us what you do.

Randy:  We’re an interdisciplinary team of architects, educators, interior designers, and sustainable site designers.

Dave: You have this as your main office, but you also have offices in Michigan, Rhode Island, Maryland and Singapore. Wow talk about expansion! Why Singapore?

Randy: We’ve been doing work in Asia for 15 years. One of our most recent clients is Singapore American School, one of the top International Baccalaureate schools in the world. We have been master planning there for a number of years and now we’ve actually begun the more detailed phase of the design. We have a studio there and one of our principals, Isaac Williams, lives there. Quite a few of our team members are there for weeks at a time. We’re transforming that campus by taking out parts and adding parts to make sure it really responds to their key learning drivers.

Dave: You aren’t taking down old schools but building new schools?

Randy: It’s a combination. We’re doing new buildings and renovations, it depends on the location. We’re working in five cities in China. In Hong Kong and Kowloon, for example, there’s very little land available. There we have been renovating four elementary schools and a secondary school, whereas in other cities like Chongqing, where there’s a bit more land, we’re doing a new six-story, secondary school. In Shanghai, we just converted an old clubhouse-like entertainment center into an early childhood center. It’s one of the hottest schools in Shanghai these days and it’s so exciting because it’s a complete paradigm shift. Our schools are more learner-centered and more about bringing out self-directed and collaborative learning.

Designing for surprise and delight. YCIS Early Childhood Education Center, Ronghua Campus Shanghai.

Dave: That’s amazing. Let’s bring it back home. At an event I met the Superintendent of the Hopkins School District.

Randy: Rhoda Mhiripiri.

Dave: One of my daughters went to Hopkins. That school looked amazing! How are you transforming this school?

Randy: We’re here to really help them implement their Roadmap 31, which is this incredible vision for what school will look like 11 years from now. We are driven by their core values, such as being authentically inclusive, intentionally adventurous, with vigilant equity and love. We’re really reimagining what their spaces could look like and the key part of our process is first to listen and understand. We’ve been doing workshops with their students, faculty, and even community members and really hearing about what that vision means.

The key part of our design cycle is to define what the problem is, and that’s the same with all of our clients around the world. If you think about defining the problem and what’s happening in this age, the World Economic Forum has established that we’re now in a fourth industrial revolution. One of the problems people are talking about, such as historian Yuval Harari, is the possibility that we’ll have an emerging useless class. Algorithms and robots can do a lot of the jobs that we had before, and this is the first industrial revolution where that’s been a problem.

This age is blurring the lines between computers and artificial intelligence, which is a form of deep learning and cyber connections and biological connections. We’re merging people skills and computer skills. If we’re designing for students who are going to be successful in this age of A.I., they’re going to need different skills than they did before.

Credit – The World Economic Forum

Dave: So, you’re designing for artificial intelligence. Is that a physical change in the school?

Randy: It’s changing how we’re teaching and learning because the top skills that students will need are the abilities to build relationships, to build community, and to listen empathetically. We need to be able to communicate well. Those skills are supported in different kinds of spaces. Robots and algorithms are not so good at listening and empathizing. They can mimic a certain kind of creativity and that’s important. We’re continuing to design for that, where you have technology that is allowing students to be in touch with their own feelings and their own thoughts to maximize their own productivity. So, for example, students need reflective spaces.

Part of what makes us successful is to self-manage, to get to know ourselves. For that we need quieter spaces, lower ceilings, softer colors, and softer seating. One of the things we see is more and more are different kinds of nest or cave spaces that we’re designing in schools everywhere. When we interview kids, this is one of the things that comes up the most at school, is they often don’t have that opportunity to chill.

“Nest” space at Anne Frank Inspire Academy in San Antonio, Texas, allows students the opportunity to relax, reflect, and practice independent learning.

Dave: Are you looking at what the school is now and how you can better the school based on information that we currently have?

Randy: Exactly. We’re at the master planning phase for nine schools in the Hopkins School district. We’re looking opportunities to renovate; areas where you may have corridors and classrooms, which can be isolating and don’t necessarily support creativity, communication and collaboration. We are transforming those spaces into varied spaces, learning communities where you have a group of four or five teachers, one hundred or so students who can interact and get to know each other better. There they can develop some of those skills that are going to be important in this fourth industrial revolution.

We are also designing for well-being as much as what we might be in the past designing for content masteries. If we if we look at where education is going, it’s shifting more from content competencies to varied competency. It includes content, but we also have these other competencies such as self-navigating, which includes knowing ourselves and being able to live and in a sense of having a sense of well-being and also cognitive competencies so we can solve problems together.

Dave: How do these words translate into design?

Randy: I’ll give you an example. At Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, a school just south of Calgary in the Rocky Mountains, we designed a large addition and renovation. The community reports an increased sense of well-being. That sense of well-being came about by being in an environment that met their needs for varied kind of acoustics, lighting, seating options, interior and exterior visual connections. You have these quiet spaces where you have some control over your environment. In the schools we design, we have all kinds of spaces. There are those buzz spaces like plazas, lab spaces where you can make things, but then there are also these spaces where you can be quiet.

Daylight through a large window wall creates well-being at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School near Calgary.

Dave: Let’s change the subject and learn about your business. What were you doing before you started your business?

Randy: There were a couple of predecessor companies. I formed an architectural firm when I was 29 in 1983 in Chicago. We were full-service, doing schools, churches and synagogues. It was always about learning and community. For family reasons, we moved to Minnesota. I felt like Chicago was competitive and cutthroat, it wasn’t as collaborative as I wanted. I launched a website called, got a patent to take architectural plans and abstract them so you could scan many of them and develop pattern recognition of what was important in innovative school design. That enabled me to connect with people all over the world and design schools in more diverse locations.

Dave: How do you get work?

Randy: We have a pull rather than a push method. I’ve always believed in sharing content that would help people and I’ve wanted to reinvent schools since I was in kindergarten. I published scores of articles and case studies and have given hundreds of talks so people came to us and gave us opportunities to design schools around the world. As we did that, we began to find wonderful people in different places to work with.

For example, Isaac Williams and I have been working together for 15 years and he is a partner now and leads our Singapore Studio. Another wonderful architect is Jay Litman — he leads our Rhode Island Studio. Jay and I had a chance to design the Piqqusilirivvik Inuit Cultural Learning Center in Fox River in the Canadian Arctic and also the Sinarmas World School in Indonesia — these great face-face adventures gave established the trust to work together mostly remotely in the decade since. Jay’s studio is completely changing the nature of learning environments in Cranston, Rhode Island and Rye, New York. 

James Seaman leads our Michigan Studio. Ten years ago we were designing 30 schools in Puerto Rico and we needed help, so we hired James as a project architect and he was clearly a star. The way our growth came about was not through location but through common interests. All of these people had this common passion for learner-centered schools, schools who really celebrated students who could be the heroes of their own stories. The partners then attracted and nurtured wonderful teams of architects, educators and designers.

Dave: What’s the marketplace like competition wise?

Randy: There are a handful of firms in the world that do the kind of work we do that focus on schools. We are unique because we have an authentically interdisciplinary team. Architects work together with learning designers, who help facilitate professional development to support our designs. They are coaching staff to use those spaces long before the space is built. So often we hear from our clients that we are selected because of our ability to listen and our integration with learning designers who are actually helping with educational readiness to use those spaces effectively.

Fielding’s Senior Learning Designer, Nathan Strenge, presents to 700 educators district-wide as part of the design process.

Dave: I’m assuming you need to customize for different environments for every school you design.

Randy: Every school we do is different yet it’s amazing how much we have in common. When we work with schools around the world, we find mostly we are listening to the same song; we have the same needs and aspirations. The key learning drivers are typically very similar.

While we still want spaces that have doors, where you can have a group of 10–50 students, the classroom model doesn’t quite make sense anymore. That was a model where teachers were standing in front of the room delivering content, but now we can get content in so many different ways. Research shows that you are going to learn much more effectively when it is integrated learning: hearing, talking, doing, trying and reflecting.

Dave: So, where do you see the future of school design in the age of AI?

Randy: Places where we can connect are going to continue to be critical for what it means to be human. Being around other people who are socializing, creating, learning, and solving problems is a fabulous way to enable learning for all ages. Together we will solve the problems of this world, and we need to come together to inspire, to help, to love each other.

I think there’s going to be much more fluid connections between schools, work and community. Schools are so expensive and technology changes all the time. So rather than build more expensive buildings, we want kids outside of schools more and we want them to partner with businesses in the community, to use all those facilities and have people in our communities use the facilities in schools. Kids at the high school level could actually spend half their time off campus. It means we could have smaller, more efficient schools. We can create learning hubs, which are smaller and serve as a home base to go out into the community, but learning hubs are one-fifth the cost.

Saint Martin De Porres High School in Cleveland, Ohio is designed to reflect community-business connections; students’ experience outside of their school through a corporate work-study program.

Saint Martin De Porres High School in Cleveland, Ohio is designed to reflect community-business connections; students’ experience outside of their school through a corporate work-study program.

The future includes schools that are agile, with re-programmable spaces that can connect learners, businesses and their surrounding community. Our buildings will be designed to last not 20 years as with the present approach but for many generations — sustainable models that can adapt to changing needs.

If you would like to listen to the podcast in its entirety:

To get in touch with Randy Fielding: 

To learn more about EdNorth:

To learn more about Dave Swerdlick and Uptown Podcast:

This content may be shared in a non-commercial usage with attribution to Fielding International.

Some Insight from Randy

Places where we can connect are going to continue to be critical for what it means to be human. Being around other people who are socializing, creating, learning, and solving problems is a fabulous way to enable learning for all ages. Together we will solve the problems of this world, and we need to come together to inspire, to help, to love each other.