I’m a big fan of dystopian novels. My favorite part is always the backstory. What problems were the world-builders trying to solve when they created the systems that caused great suffering? How might they have made different choices? What would I do if I was faced with building a world? In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself thinking along these lines. It did not seem impossible at the time that public education as we know it would, could, and should fundamentally change. It was during this time I started thinking about the possibility of a thought experiment I’ve been calling “mall school.”
The mall was an important part of my youth, as it was for many of my generation. Before social media, it was a place to gather, spend money we should not have, and see our friends outside of school. Certain smells (Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels, Subway, new shoes) cue very specific mall memories for me. Despite the memories, I’m not particularly sad that malls are dying; however, if we are going to gather communally, I’d like to see a better use of space than mindless consumerism.
During the pandemic, it occurred to me that malls are the perfect place to build schools in the future. There are massive amounts of space, open corridors, plentiful parking, security, good air circulation, and excellent lighting. Most malls have a food court. The space is already subdivided by stores, which provides space to group people purposefully. Some even have one or more green spaces!! So what would mall school look like?
Here is what I imagine:
- Students from grades K-12 all go to school in the same mall, with multi-age, flexible schedules based on their needs and their family culture and lifestyle.
- Hallways become open and flexible gathering spaces for students (and adults) to work together as they need to.
- Mall school is open from 7am-7pm, eliminating the need for separate before- and after-school care.
- Major department stores can serve as “recess and free play” daycare-style services, health clinics, and other large-group needs.
- Families meet as needed with a “concierge” who helps them create a schedule for their children that works for the whole family – this could include hobbies (like private music lessons or martial arts), medical care (like dentist or eye doctor appointments), virtual classes (with tutors available to support), and traditional academic courses (but broken into smaller segments than a traditional school day).
- Classrooms would be operated by teachers who are independent contractors – they “lease” their storefront classroom and post their available hours, which do not need to be a full school day. They are paid an hourly rate per student (which could be determined centrally or individually, depending on the chosen economic model) and decide their hours as well as the number of students they choose to serve and the term they choose to teach for (some courses could be 6 weeks, while others might be yearlong).
- Families could work at mall school to offset or eliminate tuition costs by providing childcare, teaching classes based on their interests and expertise, helping in the clinic, or working as security or clean up support. Opportunities for adults to “upskill” and earn their own credentials would be part of program offerings.
- Parking lots would be repurposed as green space. Teachers could use external doors and alleyways usually hidden from public view to access additional learning spaces.
- The food court could be completely run by students with pop-up experimental restaurants that also serve as course credit.
- Academics and extracurricular activities would blend seamlessly into a life-school model, with mentoring, tutoring, and other support services readily available.
I believe deeply in public education. I also believe our current system needs major changes to serve the needs of the public. Sometimes I am skeptical whether we can rebuild without a huge Finland-style overhaul. I wonder, do people living in a pre-dystopian society recognize the approaching dystopia? How long does it take to actually acknowledge the tipping point and at what point is it too late? I, for one, will be watching with an open and curious mind legislation that allows education (or educators?) to do things differently in the years to come.
Would you work at mall school?