Technology and new teaching theories are driving the design of K-12 schools away from the traditional.
By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor
The traditional classroom is no longer the ideal building block for today’s K-12 educational experience. Rather, rethinking where and how learning takes place is essential to creating new educational spaces.
“Schools today need to depart from the idea that learning can only occur in a traditional classroom and move to the concept of the entire school building as a tool for learning. This means that every space in the building—the outdoor spaces, hallways, stairs, cafeteria, gym—should all be considered learning spaces. This is the ideal learning environment for today and the future,” said Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, partner, PBK Architects, Dallas.
“The goal is to make education student centered, as we know that every student is a unique individual who learns differently. Traditional educational delivery was based on the factory model of education where all students were educated exactly the same. The factory model was represented by the teacher at the front of the room, delivering instruction to the students, who were recipients of information and not active participants in their learning. We know today this type of instruction does not prepare students for the demands of today’s world. Today’s jobs require students to be critical thinkers, creative, collaborative, and able to adapt to the needs of our global economy,” she continued.
Educational delivery needs to change to be a more inclusive, two-way conversation, Nigaglioni thinks. “In lieu of the teacher as a sage-on-stage, they need to be more of a guide-on-the-side, working hand-in-hand with students to ensure they are mastering the skills needed to succeed,” she said.
“This change in delivery results in a change in how learning environments are designed. First and foremost, they need to be agile, allowing students and teachers to rearrange the space as needed for the activities of the day, or to best suit their individual learning styles. This means active learning furniture that is light and easy to move and reconfigure,” Nigaglioni commented.
“Since learning will no longer be siloed in a classroom, diverse learning spaces throughout the building are needed. This may result in niches off of hallways where groups of students can come together to work, or it could be small conference rooms for groups to work more quietly. In order to activate the whole building as a learning tool, we see all spaces having more transparency between them, so that activities can extend beyond the walls of the space. In addition, we need to have the ability to have spaces flow from one to another, so the use of movable walls and folding walls is fundamental in the design of new learning spaces. Lastly, it is imperative that learning environments be designed with the user in mind, so access to natural light and good indoor air quality are key,” she said.
Indeed, flexibility is an often-mentioned ingredient in the ideal classroom, just as it is valued in higher education and corporate environments. “Students need options in the way they learn; good teachers need options to facilitate different ways of teaching. Spaces that adapt to more than one purpose allow learning methodologies to evolve. The future is infinitely malleable, so one approach to flexibility is to provide options—single student desks versus group learning spaces with movable furniture, mobile devices versus wall-mounted screens, a mix of traditional and non-traditional classrooms within a facility,” said Brendan Beachler, associate, Duda|Paine Architects, Durham, NC.
“At Bullis School in Potomac, MD,” he related, “we’re creating lounge seating areas that will mainly serve as small-group study spaces, but they will also allow socializing and development of the school’s culture. Not all classrooms are equal, though. Some require specialized infrastructure—chemistry and biology labs have different needs than physics. A discussion on the ideal classrooms must consider the subject being taught.”
Flexibility is key, agreed Jason Mellard, AIA, LEED AP, senior associate, Corgan, Dallas. “Education has moved on from a primarily lecture-style format to group learning with peer-to-peer mentoring, the teacher becoming more of a facilitator throughout the classroom space. Flipped classrooms and project-based learning continue to affect classroom design. Interactive markerboards on multiple walls, furniture and seating on casters, less built-ins, and close transparent adjacency to shared-group breakout spaces outside of the classroom are other features. The classroom expands beyond four hard walls,” he said.
Teaching methods and configurations notwithstanding, attention needs to be paid to fundamental environmental issues. According to Beachler, studies have shown that daylight in a classroom improves learning. “A connection to nature is important; views out a window or spaces that connect to the outdoors expand learning opportunities,” he said. “Generally considered green design, these features often become teaching tools so students learn about the environment and how a building works first hand.”
“There are many attributes of the built environment that have been tested, and we know they have a very positive impact on learning. One of the most significant improvements in learning is associated with the introduction of natural light in learning spaces. Natural light has been linked with improved math and reading scores. In addition, the correct artificial lighting is also beneficial to learning, as it reduces glare and provides the right levels of lighting on work surfaces,” said PBK’s Nigaglioni.
“Other attributes of the built environment that have been tested to positively impact student achievement when properly executed include furniture, indoor air quality, ventilation, temperature, color, and acoustics,” she said.
Classroom features overlap and have an impact on each other. “For example, a room designed for more than 20 students requires a projector over a TV or monitor, so it also requires window shading. Acoustics are vital—rowdy classroom activities can’t interrupt a class that is taking a test. Ideally, a design limits distractions. Acoustical sealants at the bottom and top of walls are essential to reducing sound transmission, as is the need to seal all wall penetrations. And mechanical systems cannot interrupt the learning process,” explained Beachler.
“Small class size is an enduring trend in education and essential to consider in defining an ideal classroom,” Beachler added. “Small class size is universally considered the best way to facilitate learning. Students need interaction with teachers, and a smaller classroom allows teachers to be more effective with each individual student, however that teacher operates.”
All of these attributes of today’s idea classroom are based on contemporary education theory and have meant changes in design and construction, Beachler observed. “For example,” he explained, “Bullis School was founded as a Navy prep academy, so its classrooms were very traditional and, because they were constructed of concrete block, very durable and acoustically very functional. Block walls were prevalent in older public school classroom construction, but today they are expensive, limit flexibility, and are difficult to modify later. Today’s schools use sheetrock and stud walls. In the overall design of a classroom facility, smaller classrooms reduce the overall building size. So, with smaller classrooms, square footage that would have gone into a larger classroom can go to other programs within the building.”
Experimentation Drives Design
Allowing teachers to experiment drives the evolution of classroom design, Beachler commented. “Spaces that accommodate different teaching methods and technologies, or that are flexible, allow new models to emerge and develop. Many practices in use nationally today were tested at Bullis, and then rapidly implemented across the school’s departments; Bullis is in many ways a teaching research lab,” he said.
“Changes in educational delivery, such as project-based learning and blended learning, as well as the increase in STEAM programs (which integrate art into the science, technology, engineering, and math of STEM programs) and the integration of the maker movement in schools, have resulted in positive improvements in student success. Students learn better when they are engaged in what they’re learning, and we all learn better by doing, rather than sitting back and receiving. These varied deliveries are reaching students and getting them excited about their learning experience. They also parallel real-life experiences by involving students in hands-on activities that require collaboration amongst peers and critical thinking,” noted PBK’s Irene Nigaglioni.
“Zoned classrooms and large and small ‘clean’ and ‘messy’ project spaces allow students hands-on application incorporating standard coursework, increasing retention and understanding of the material,” commented Corgan’s Mellard.
Redesigning the educational experience, of course, is not without its challenges. “A problem with flexibility is the more flexible a space is, the less specific it can be,” Beachler pointed out. “A chemistry lab has much more infrastructure involved than a physics lab. Accounting for all types of learning that might occur in a space is prohibitively expensive. An example is a marine biology lab, which requires both extra structure and plumbing for aquariums. Knowing the specialized classroom requirements early in the design process allows proper integration of any required infrastructure. Waiting until later in the process can be costly,” he said.
Getting teachers to adapt to new environments can be a challenge as well. “The biggest challenge we see comes with changing expectations. We can design and build next-generation learning environments that are based on research, but if the teacher goes back to lecturing to students based on the factory model, then most of the improvements will have little effect on student success. We oftentimes visit new schools to find active-learning furnishings lined up in rows, and the teacher’s desk in the front of the room. We also see glass walls covered with paper, and exterior windows blocked by shades, ignoring the benefits and opportunities they provide,” said PBK’s Irene Nigaglioni.
“In order for learning environments to be successful,” she continued, “teachers need professional development to better understand the new delivery systems and to maximize their learning environment. We call this process educational commissioning. We start the process at the onset of design so that teachers can be active participants in setting goals for these spaces. This allows ample time to visit similar spaces, learn how to maximize the components of the new spaces, and in the end, be able to create active-learning environments.”
“It’s important to look at the school design holistically. An ideal classroom will have less of an impact if the whole school building does not encourage and support collaboration and 21st century learning,” noted Corgan’s Jason Mellard.
Technology Is Ubiquitous
Needless to say, technology has a tremendous impact on today’s—and tomorrow’s —learning environment. “A classroom building requires infrastructure to grow over the next 20 years. Designers need to know the technology needs of users now, but also plan for technology on the horizon,” observed Beachler. “Consider ethernet; while the goal is for high-speed wireless streaming across a facility, most city and regional infrastructure is just not there yet, so we provide ethernet outlets for use now, at the time of construction, while planning for high-speed wireless in the future.”
He continued, “Building technology is typically purchased right before it is installed—technology evolves that rapidly. We help clients weigh current needs, future potential, and overall cost. Decisions about technology also must account for issues such as energy consumption and building-system controls. Lighting, thermal control, and features such as mechanical shades and touchscreens are just a few technologies that use control systems and might go into a classroom. At Bullis, almost every room has motorized shades, because the school wanted to ensure teachers have the right tools. A building’s environmental features, such as control systems, often become teaching tools.”
“Technology does play a big part in education by allowing continuous access to learning opportunities for students. Implementation of technology has, for the most part, been successful. School districts implement their technology plan at their own pace, based on their funding ability, and allowing for trial and testing time,” noted Nigaglioni.
“Many school districts have gone to a 1:1 initiative, where they equip each student with a device. These initiatives can be successful, but districts need to be ready to address issues of security, as well as replacement and maintenance. Some districts have gone more to a BYOD—bring your own device—program, so students can bring their devices from home to gain access to class activities. Again, the critical thing is ensuring the program is right for each school and rolled out in a way that is sustainable,” she said.
“For either of these programs to work, school buildings must have a robust technology infrastructure. Wireless access allows students to move through the school building and gain access to their projects as needed. This helps extend the learning to all parts of the building, keeping students engaged through the school day. Interactive screens located throughout the building create display and sharing opportunities for all. From virtual sand boxes to the use of virtual reality (VR) goggles, technology is truly changing how learning takes place,” Nigaglioni concluded.
Injecting a note of caution, Jason Mellard reminded fellow architects and planners that, “education is the goal, not technology. It is a mistake to present technology as the answer. Instead, technology should perform seamlessly in the background. Short-throw projectors onto large writable surfaces can have more impact than a costly, bulky smartboard. As more tablets and devices are distributed to students, students can show their screen on the main projector or respond to questions anonymously. Balancing ‘screen time’ with physical interaction, as many parents seek for their children, is an issue to consider in schools as well.”
What Lies Ahead?
Today’s changes in classroom design and learning methods are by no means the last word in education theory.
“Simulation environments have become an essential part of learning in higher education, especially in technical programs such as medical education. Research suggests that hands-on learning is also beneficial with younger kids. Classroom facilities, and those who design them, must provide as many learning opportunities as possible,” Beachler said.
“There’s always going to be more technology, because technology is progress. But more research is needed as technology advances to determine when a computer is the right tool, what subjects are enhanced by hands-on learning, when group learning is best, and the role of access to the outdoor environment in learning. Contemporary research on these questions is interesting, because people are looking at the future, but they’re also looking back and seeking to understand what might have been valuable in past models and what needs to evolve,” he said.
“If school culture is focused on providing students good learning experiences, they’re always going to be pushing the boundaries. Right now, schools like Bullis are bringing together different departments to determine how they can collaborate between disciplines—getting the shop teacher, arts teacher, and science teacher together to create a mechanical-engineering program that creates something beautiful and not just functional,” Beachler said.
“Tomorrow’s learners will have a world of opportunities,” agreed Nigaglioni. “We see more integration of AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) technologies in school buildings. If you consider that students today are true digital natives, these technologies have a great appeal to them.”
In addition, she said, “there are a lot of opportunities that can be gained by bringing gamification to learning. AR games like Pokémon Go require community engagement, novelty, and movement—all activities that are proven to enhance learning. Therefore, learning environments must be flexible and changeable to allow more movement, more activity, and a departure from lecture settings. Technology and furniture can have a big impact on learning environments, and when properly designed, they can allow a variety of settings and activities.”
“Online learning is already becoming a norm,” Nigaglioni said. “We see many schools that have gone to the concept of ‘flipped classrooms’ where students review the lessons at home, and then come to the classroom to do their homework alongside their teacher. This takes away the need for lecture, creating more student-centered environments. Tables that allow groups of students to work together with a shared screen are becoming more widely used. Each student may have their own device, but through sharing wireless hub tools, they can switch between devices and share work amongst each team. This setup is very successful in STEM environments.”
“Much has been discussed about the need for actual classrooms in the future. Given the departure from the traditional classroom and the goal for 24-7 learning, we can truthfully say that the whole world is becoming the new classroom. However, schools are still needed as they provide opportunities for face-to-face collaboration, team work, and social interaction. The need for interaction will continue to demand a physical school building, even though learning will not be restricted to its walls,” Nigaglioni predicted.
Imagine that you are a middle-school student. You are going to be working over the next three months on a project exploring how to make your school more energy efficient. You are going to be working in a team with four other students. All of your teachers, including math, humanities, English, and science, will be involved with this project and providing input and assignments to you and your team related to your ultimate goal.
In addition to your teacher’s input, you will be doing online research, hearing talks from experts in the field, and interviewing various specialists. You will be giving preliminary presentations and ultimately having to build a model or make a demonstration that demonstrates some aspect of your research.
Given that scenario, what should your “classroom” look like to support the type of learning that you will be doing during those three months? This scenario is becoming more and more typical in schools today. As teachers focus more and more on helping students become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, the school day is no longer traditional or static.
The learning environment needs to accommodate a broad range of learning experiences. It needs to be able to continually adapt as learning teaching changes over the course of a week and month and year and needs to be flexible enough to change for experiences that we may not yet be able to imagine. The need for individual research, small-group work, presentation, hands-on building, and for a range of spaces to support teacher student interactions of different group sizes are all important.
At HMFH Architects, Cambridge, MA, we have been exploring these types of approaches with the educators that we work with and there has been a very positive response to the flexibility and adaptability that access to a range of learning spaces provides. At the Woodland Elementary School in Milford, MA, a learning commons right outside the classroom provides project areas and presentation spaces that are shared by classroom teachers. Hands-on activities are now a regular part of classroom activities.
In the trio of new elementary schools in Concord, NH, flexible learning spaces are dispersed throughout a central learning commons. This vibrant, central zone contains an amphitheater, a cozy circular storytelling room, media room, and multiple project areas. These project areas have a sink, storage, counter space for display, and easily moveable furniture to serve many purposes. Teachers can work on projects and use the learning commons for special activities and collaboration without needing to re-arrange their classrooms. Teachers have reported that changing spaces also helps provide a break in routine, which refocuses students’ attention. —Laura Wernick, FAIA, REFP, LEED AP, senior principal, HMFH Architects, Cambridge, MA