Today’s schoolhouse: How architecture shapes the way we learn

We never stop learning. Learning environments include everything from a preschool to the office, but traditional education occurs in K–12 schools, technical and vocational programs, and on college campuses. The design of formal learning spaces responds to pedagogical trends, community needs, and a myriad of other factors. Architects working with school districts provide solutions to design the schools of tomorrow.


“Education is very cyclical in terms of pedagogy and child development,” says Allison McKenzie, AIA, Principal, Director of Sustainability at SHP. “We’re seeing movement from teacher-centered classrooms where they’re at the front lecturing, to a growing interest in alternate learning styles, like Montessori or project-based learning, where students are the focal point.”


Designing for the Future

“As a designer, you’re working with an educational community trying to design for the future,” says Stephen Gastright, AIA, Director of Education Studio at KZF Design. “We’re not designing for someone from the class of 1965 who works in the building; we’re designing for the class of 2038 and what they need to succeed.”


Educational theory and design swings like a pendulum from open to closed spaces. The earliest American schools were one room for all learners which transitioned in the 19th century to large lecture style classrooms with fixed seating. In the 20th century, the frequency of the shift between those models increased, swinging from modular-modernist design in the midcentury to open-plan schools in the 60s, then back to traditional classrooms in the 80s, with increasing adoption of technology.


“Now you learn everywhere,” says Michael Schuster, FAIA, Principal/President MSA Design. “Educational environments need to be more flexible. Technology allows for more open spaces, collaborative study areas, and learning commons.”


Evidence-based Design

Architects and educators consider evidence-based design findings in planning learning environments. Evidence-based design uses scientific methods to evaluate the impact of physical spaces on occupants. Buildings, and humans, are complex systems and it can be challenging to pinpoint the specific cause of a behavioral change, but ongoing research continues to validate the positive impact of access to natural light and outside views on people living, working, or studying inside buildings.


“Natural light is a key design component,” says Cori Cassidy, AIA, Principal at A359 Partners in Architecture. “We organize the building program to achieve the best placement of spaces for access to natural light and outside views. Those views also help you orient yourself in the space and can be a wayfinding tool.”


Evidence-based design demonstrates the positive impact of light and access to the outdoors on student learning. Issues like stress, nature deficit disorder, and attention fatigue from too much screen time can be remedied by sending students outside. Stepping into fresh air can reduce stress and reset focus, which makes people more ready to learn and better able to retain information.


Active design, which provides opportunities for physical activity, is another area of evidence-based design impacting learning environments. “There is a brain response to climbing stairs that is beneficial to students,” says Gastright. “Physical exertion throughout the day helps people learn better and maintain focus.”


Balancing Diverse Needs

Features that positively impact learning outcomes would seem logical to include in the design of learning spaces, however schools must meet a range of needs that are often in conflict.


Despite the demonstrated success of active design in improving attention, reducing stress, and helping lower obesity, designing schools that encourage students to do more walking can be challenging. “A lot of schools run on tight schedules,” says McKenzie. “There is concern about the efficiency of transitioning between spaces, so student movement may need to be limited.”


Improved access to natural light and the outdoors can raise issues around school safety. Large windows and extra doors may concern administrators worried about tornadoes or school shootings. The tension between protecting our young from tragic events and providing a better learning environment can create conflicting demands for administrators and architects.


“There isn’t a single solution to these problems,” says Schuster. “We take a commonsense approach that combines passive and active systems. Passive in that you provide a variety of spaces to give people more options. Active monitoring of entrances and cleanliness.”


Material choices can help alleviate some concerns. For example, laminated glass improves the acoustics of a space and is very difficult to break, but if broken, stays together instead of splintering into shards; reducing injury risk in natural disasters and providing a barrier for active shooters.


Increasing windows and visibility in schools can also help reduce bullying and help people feel safer in the space.


“We see school safety through two lenses: physical and psychological,” says Gastright. “People prefer to be in spaces where they can see their surroundings, what is called passive surveillance. Design needs to balance these two needs while understanding circumstances cannot be predicted.”


“Do you design for one potentially tragic event, or do you create the best design for every day?” asks McKenzie.


Serving Students and the Community

Stakeholder engagement is essential for architects to understand the concerns of administrators, educators, parents, and students. These constituents not only help identify the problems architects need to solve, but also advocate for the design features essential for the project to succeed.


“We ask for some level of involvement from students, usually focus groups,” says Schuster. “Designers think they know what kids do; faculty have a pretty good idea; but kids know how they use a space.”


Every school district has a unique set of goals and stakeholders. When considering updating or replacing school buildings, administrators seek funding from the state and local taxpayers. Reliance on state funding also comes with design guidelines and recommendations that can impact location (neighborhood schools versus consolidated campuses), construction (renovation of existing facilities versus new building), and facilities (classroom size and common spaces). For architects and administrators, its essential to have clear goals for the project before beginning.


“We like to do a visioning process with each district, engaging administration, wide representation from the teachers, and the most successful ones include a lot of input from students,” says McKenzie. “There are alternative design paths when working with the state design manual; it requires a lot more creativity.”


Architects engage stakeholders around design options while also sharing their experience, research, and best practices for the design of learning environments.


“A lot of districts need a little bit of guidance,” says McKenzie. “Its easy to design for what they’re doing right now. How they deliver education will evolve, so we ask questions about how they envision teaching in the future so they can evaluate their own assumptions.”


Designing for Success

“When we work with schools, we talk a lot about whole-child development,” says Gastright. “Schools get measured on test scores, but the reality is test scores are such a small part of whether a child succeeds in life. Social, civic, emotional wellbeing, and physical health all play a part; so how do we design learning environments that support those needs?”


To better prepare young people for the future, the physical spaces of learning environments are changing. High schools are embracing design elements like student commons and information centers that feel more like a college campus. Universities are bringing industry on campus — or sending students off campus — to co-working spaces that give them the experience of real-world workplaces before graduation and help break down academic silos.


“When industry, community, and academia come together to form entrepreneurial partnerships there is a need for shared collaborative space,” says Cassidy. “These environments feature open common spaces – break rooms, casual seating zones, maker spaces, and shared work areas — where students, professors, and industry leaders cross paths and learn from each other.”


As universities create innovation hubs, vocational and trade schools are also responding to trends in the marketplace, including the demand for skilled trades and the pervasiveness of technology in fields ranging from physical therapy to equipment repair.


“Instead of teaching what they think graduates will be dealing with, vocational schools contact business and industries and ask what skills they need,” says Schuster. “Those students are getting trained on the actual equipment being used.”


Focusing on Flexibility

The significant expense of building or updating an educational facility demands that architects and administrators plan far into the future. Learning environments today are increasingly more flexible in their use of space and furnishings.


“In a learning setting with evolving needs or multiple users there is a focus on flexible, reconfigurable space,” says Cassidy. “We consider creative ways to define space that is less fixed. In some cases this may be a furniture solution that is easily adapted, technology that can be shifted to anywhere in the room, or drop-down power from the ceiling allowing classrooms to be reconfigured on the fly.”


Improving the adaptability of a space can also make it more accessible to diverse learners. As schools mainstream students with special needs into classrooms with their peers, inclusive design throughout the facility is as important as creating spaces for specialized learning.


“Many of the ‘21st Century Learning’ environments we design couple the open flexible spaces with adjacent spaces for push-in intervention (if a student needs help catching up with classmates or overcoming adverse learning abilities) so the student stays in the ‘neighborhood’ with classmates, instead of pull-out interventions which can have stigmas attached,” says Gastright.


“21C design does require more space but supports kids in their learning environments with their cohorts (student-centered) instead of pulling kids out to go to an office where the teacher then brings all kids for tutorial/intervention (teacher-centered),” he continues.


Providing a variety of spaces to meet the range of learner needs is essential in educational environments. Heads-down spaces for solo studying, collaborative centers, places for group gatherings, and even opportunities for traditional speaker-centered presentation, are all essential to support the variety of student learning styles and teaching methodologies.


“Overall, the move toward supportive individual learning and collaborative learning does a lot to address the needs of a more diverse student body,” says McKenzie “Schools strive for inclusion, but still need specialized spaces that allow students the time and space they need.”


Tomorrow’s Schoolhouse

Although it’s impossible to know what the future will bring, architects can use evidence-based design, practical experience, and professional expertise to help communities plan for tomorrow. Learning environments that embrace the diversity of student learning styles and the range of teaching methodologies while acknowledging community needs will yield designs that provide a healthy space for tomorrow’s student to learn, grow, and thrive.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.orgThe views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.

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