Today’s Learners and the Next Generation of Schools

As summer starts to wind down, the excitement of the start of school becomes the topic of conversation with many families.  However, that excitement is oftentimes short lived as our students return to traditional, perhaps even outdated school facilities.  These are schools lined with long hallways with lockers, flanked by square classrooms, and limited view to the outdoors. The traditional double loaded corridor I just described can be found in most schools, and it is representative of a different era of instruction and learning. The move from that era, to today’s fast paced global world mandates the need for significant change in the way our learning environments are designed and built. However, the change is slow to come.

SCHOOL DAZE

Many discussions on learning and instruction focus on the teacher, instructional delivery, technology, and testing.  It is rare that the conversation include the built environment and its components.  Although we spend more than 90% of our lives inside buildings, we don’t truly understand how these environments impact our behavior.  In a recent study completed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and development (OECD), it was identified that on average, American students spend 943 hours a year in elementary school, and 1,016 hours a year in middle school. That results in 8,706 hours in school by the time they enter high school. The place where children learn does have an impact on learning, as well-designed learning environments can improve student achievement.

In a recent study completed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and development (OECD), it was identified that on average, American students spend 943 hours a year in elementary school, and 1,016 hours a year in middle school.

IMPACT OF CLASSROOM DESIGN

There have been many studies conducted on the individual components of a classroom, and their impact on learning. We know from this research that classrooms that have natural light can improve test scores in reading and math. We also know that classrooms with the right acoustics and the right levels of ventilation can help students focus better, therefore learning better. However, the challenge has been putting all the data together and more importantly, understanding that learning is not limited to the traditional classroom, but it rather happens all throughout the school, and beyond the school’s walls.  Planning and designing next generation learning environments requires a holistic approach that includes not only components such as lighting and temperature, but also consider factors such as personalization, ownership and flexibility. By utilizing a holistic approach, we can create environments that boost learning.

A recent study by the University of Salford in Manchester, UK found that well designed classrooms can boost learning progress in elementary school students by up to 16% in a year. They approached their study evidencing the holistic impacts of spaces on users. In addition to the components of the classroom, they considered these two additional categories:

  • Individualization – How well the classroom met the needs of a particular group of students.
  • Stimulation – How exciting and vibrant the classroom is.

INDIVIDUALIZATION AND STIMULATION

Although the findings of the study focused on the classroom, next generation schools don’t limit learning to the classroom.  Next generation learning environments therefore abandon the concept of the individual classroom, and expand learning to every space in the building, and outside. So, individualization and stimulation is further enhanced since it can be found throughout the entire facility.  This allows for the development of a variety of settings and spaces that truly allow for personalization, and connection. The measure of how connected students and teachers are to the rest of the building is important in enhancing student success, and it can be accomplished not only in how the areas in the building are linked together, but also by introducing transparency and openness into the spaces.

Next generation learning environments therefore abandon the concept of the individual classroom, and expand learning to every space in the building, and outside.

By creating learning communities, we have the opportunity to arrange rooms around central collaboration areas that can serve as the communities “plaza”.  Here, there can be a variety of settings where students and teachers can come together and connect.  By using movable walls or revolving doors, class areas open to the space, so learning is shared. Transparency into the rooms is very important, to keep a visual connection between the spaces at all times. Teachers that teach in these kinds of environments have expressed a need to improve the way they teach, as they see and hear their colleagues, and learn new and creative ways to teach.  Students also become engaged in activities they may not have considered interesting before, but by observing different classes as they travel throughout the building, they become engaged and keep learning constant. All these spaces help keep stimulation at a high level, without it being too distracting.

Collaboration spaces often fail if they are not articulated, and if they are not designed to enhance those activities that positively impact learning. These spaces need to provide platforms for diverse activities to take place, so that needed skills can be gained.  According to the Partnership for 21st Century Schools, creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are essential learning skills that will separate students who are prepared for the complex life and work environments of the 21st century, from those who are not. Therefore, including areas where ideas can be shared and displayed, areas where students can present their work to others and areas where students can come together and work as a team is a must. These areas do need to be flexible, and agile enough to allow both students and teachers to rearrange and customize to meet their needs, or to best respond to the tasks at hand.

…creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration are essential learning skills that will separate students who are prepared for the complex life and work environments of the 21st century…

Another important design consideration of these collaboration areas is the inclusion of individual spaces, commonly referred to as “caves”. These caves provide a quieter, more focused environment for those students that work best alone or in small groups.  They are often found off the collaboration space area, but can also be a part of it via the use of furniture.  Light levels, soft seating and improved acoustics in these areas help make the space a retreat for students, giving them the comfort to complete difficult work quietly. It is important to note that an added benefit of these learning communities is the improved safety and security they bring.  Limiting the size of the community allows for improved and more significant relationships between students and staff, which in turn help reduce discipline issues.

A critical component of next generation schools is a constant connection to the outdoors.  Whether this is accomplished through the use of windows that allow for direct views to the exterior, or the creation of courtyards that allow the collaboration spaces to extend out to the exterior, the connection to the outdoors cannot be ignored in schools.  There are health benefits associated with natural light, as well as great benefits for focus and concentration.  In addition, the connection to the exterior brings an improved sense of safety and security, and it has been proven to help students with special needs as it allows for active movement to be a part of the school day.

A critical component of next generation schools is a constant connection to the outdoors.

MUCH NEEDED CHANGE

Architects and designers play a critical role in bringing change to today’s learning environments.  Architecture has an impact on human behavior as it has an effect on the brain. The role of neuroscience in architecture is a current concept that brings scientific proof and research to the design of buildings.  The brain controls behavior, and the environment can alter the structure of the brain. Therefore, if the environment can change behavior, so can architecture. In the case of schools, a change in behavior can improve the learning experience and result in increased student achievement.

Armed with the research, and results from schools that have implemented change, it is easy to make the change. Transitioning from double loaded corridors to next generation schools is simple, if the right strategies are used. As baseball player Willie Stargell stated, “Life is one big transition.” It is definitely time for our schools to make the transition.