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Designing school buildings for 21st century learning

Editor’s note: This article was written by Victoria Bergsagel ,founder and president of Architects of Achievement, a design strategy firm that builds bridges between educational research and actual school design. She was the speaker at the Nov. 20 What Matters and What Counts in Education breakfast.

Our country is abuzz with talk about 21st century learning. We chatter about global competition and the need for innovation. We bemoan the shortage of a well-prepared work force and cry out for systems to more equitably serve all students. Yet when it comes to the design of educational facilities, we are stuck in a time-warp. If he awoke today, Rip Van Winkle would probably recognize our schools. We can do better. We must.

There is plenty of research to guide robust school designs. The National Research Council (How People Learn, 2002) says we learn best through: 1) active, inquiry-based learning experiences that foster curiosity; 2) in-depth projects through which we make application and find relevance; and 3) performance assessment where we exhibit evidence of our skills and show what we know. But we don’t need rocket scientists to tell us that.

Design schools for people. Better yet, ask students. One 16-year-old nailed it. “No one wants to learn in sterile, boring, institutional facilities. Give us beauty, real-life projects, choice, opportunity, and ownership, and we’ll show you what we can do.”

The American Architectural Foundation (2009) determined in a recent study that students want hands-on learning opportunities, variety and flexibility, comfortable and social spaces, seamless technology, sustainable designs, and connections to the outdoors. I could not agree more.

Inspired by Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, (1979), I gathered some colleagues a few years back to write a book of our own. Architecture for Achievement: Building Patterns for Small School Learning (2007) offers patterns to reconfigure, renovate, and design better schools. Here’s a sampling:

Consider Optimal Light. It affects our motivation, energy, and vision—all of which are profoundly connected to learning. (The Heschong-Malone studies in1999 and 2002 found that students with the most classroom daylight progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests in one year.) Why would we not design schools to raise achievement and conserve energy?

Develop Indoor-Outdoor Connections. At their best, indoor spaces in schools connect and flow naturally into outdoor spaces presenting wonderful opportunities for developmental play, exploration, interaction, and learning. Consider designing learning patios for projects, nature trails and gardens for engagement, and field studies to encourage curiosity and adventure.

Design Clusters of Learning. Project development, community meetings, lectures, exercise, and presentations can all be experienced when key adjacencies (classrooms, specialty rooms, and studios) are co-located and easily adapted to a variety of teaching and learning styles.

Provide Varied Spaces. Students learn in different ways. Provide places for exploration, collaboration, tinkering, performance, quiet study, and yes, even direct instruction.

Operate campuses on a Human Scale and design in ways that permit all the participants in a learning community to know each other well. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Denver, and many other cities are reconfiguring existing campuses and building new small school complexes with remarkable success. So is Marysville, WA.

The Marysville Getchell High School Campus, just north of Seattle, is a stellar example of principle-driven design. Summits, open houses, and focus groups were all par for the course as the community developed guiding principles to move mountains – and raise graduation rates by over 25 percent. No wonder it is the darling of the school design world.

Recently named the best school design in the nation by the National School Boards’ Association (NSBA), and best in the world by the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI), the campus consists of a community building (replete with a gym, fitness center, and dining facilities) and four autonomous high school buildings. The Biomed Academy, School for the Entrepreneur, Academy of Construction and Engineering, and School for International Communications each serve 400 students. Outdoor learning patios, reconfigurable project labs, connected learning studios, and collaborative circulation spaces make the campus more like a modern workplace than the typical school. Students love the campus and are proud of their involvement in its design. See for yourself and check out this video.

Marysville accomplished this feat by developing guiding principles to focus their work, filter important educational decisions, test architectural options, and clarify important decisions when adult interests came in conflict with overall goals. As a result:

  • Community is provided at various scales to encourage community connection.
  • Relationships at the Center promote teaming and blur boundaries through transparency and shared spaces.
  • Learner-Focused spaces support interaction at various scales to invigorate projects, collaboration, and the display of student work.
  • Identity and Purpose shines through unique colors, materials, and user definitions of each small school.
  • Accountability is encouraged through spatial transparencies that provide connections between staff, students, parents, and community.

With strong relationships as a foundation, we can guide partners in inquiry and provide powerful experiences that help teams envision new possibilities. Gently pushing, we can challenge assumptions, ask bold questions, and engage in courageous conversations to design better schools.

Listen carefully, dream mightily, and execute elegantly. And take a cue from Christopher Alexander. “When you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it.”

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