Professional Learning

Buildings That Teach: Design and Learning Go Hand in Hand

The way a school is designed and used has a profound impact on the way students learn.

July 1, 1997
Credit: Max Seabaugh

A growing number of communities throughout the country are building schools of the future that feature indoor spaces to accommodate a variety of learning styles and activities, as well as outdoor areas that feature gardens, exercise areas, and more.

The Indoor Learning Environment

In state-of-the-art learning environments, classrooms with straight rows of desks and a teacher lecturing in the front are gone. Instead, the indoor spaces of the school are carefully planned to encourage learning and support the developmental needs of the whole person. They consist of places for students to engage in applied hands-on inquiry, problem solving, group work, discussions, presentations, and reflection.

The school building itself is carefully designed to stimulate curiosity and serve as an instructional tool. The architecture embodies concepts of math, science, social studies, and art that used to be found only in textbooks. Mechanical equipment for the heating and cooling systems of the school is visible, so students can study how it works. Exposed structural elements such as beams, trusses, and columns demonstrate principles of geometry, physics, and design. Walls, floors, and furnishings feature large-scale maps, murals, and timelines that prompt wonder among younger children and reinforce learning for older students. Hallways are no longer barren corridors, but display artifacts, cultural objects, student artwork, and scientific inventions. The "eatery" is foods -- some grown on school grounds -- served family-style, promoting communication between adults and children.

Classrooms are now studios, workstations, and laboratories for learning, with teachers serving as guides and mentors for students as they undertake discovery experiences using a variety of technologies. The areas are home-like: soft, color-coordinated, sound-attenuated, and inviting. Some older schools that exemplify the monumental symbolic power of classical architecture have been remodeled on the inside for simplicity and technical functionality. Students in these settings have been involved in the study of such sites and have experienced the value of historic preservation and the updating and recycling of old buildings.

The typical learning center is a large studio with a computer-managed network of workstations that gives students and teachers access to -- and control of -- applications and information. The network allows students to work on real-world problems in areas such as robotics, ecology, hydroponics, superconductivity, biotechnology, laser optics, design, and architecture. The total volume of space, not just the floor, is used for learning. Walls, ceilings, and windows are systematically designed by teams of engineers, architects, scientists, and students to meet principles of modularity, deployability, and retractability. Everything in the room is on wheels, pulleys, and brakes. Some walls contain drop-down tables and pullout shelves. Some parts of the floors are also retractable or can be elevated to form amphitheaters and stages for readings, dances, or performances, which allow students to demonstrate their understanding of knowledge and learning processes in a variety of ways. These "high-tech, high-touch" studios are the heart of the learning environment, facilitating student-centered, experiential learning and promoting creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

Adjacent to the larger studios are niches for different activities, including a child-scaled cooking area for learning nutrition, science, and math; an art studio for three-dimensional work, such as building models of items designed on the computer; music studios for practicing; dance studios; a small theater; and private quiet areas for reading, contemplation, small group discussions, and social interaction. Teachers are trained to be space planners, space managers, and facilitators of environmental learning.

The Outdoor Learning Environment

The landscape design of the school includes community gardens, root cellars, nature and jogging trails, pathways, and areas for growing plants, including food. The landscape maintenance crew includes students who maintain a healthy, functional, and beautiful area surrounding each learning community. Students are thus able to experience land stewardship, botany, eco-literacy, organic farming, and environmental aesthetics. In congested urban settings, rooftop gardens, greenhouses, and container gardens serve the same purpose. Because students are learning to nourish and care for their environment, there is no destructive graffiti.

Wind generators produce electricity so students can learn to track how much it costs to produce energy as part of their integrated studies in business and science. Where possible, solar power is used to heat the building. Windows are designed to help students track angles of the sun and to bring in natural light to all spaces. Schools are a theatrical set designed for learning. Some, in benign or sunny climates, have canopies of retractable shade structures over outdoor amphitheaters with strings of tiny lights to act as dazzling displays under the night sky during outdoor performances. Landscape and buildings are interwoven and complement each other, incorporating a variety of design principles. Examples of symmetry, asymmetry, order, hierarchy, balance, and harmony abound. These concepts are imbedded in traditional and abstract geometry, vibrant and subdued color palettes, curvilinear and rectilinear forms, and cable and tensile structures. There is functionality to the design of these learning centers, but there is also the magical commodity of delight which motivates the community to want to be there, to want to be lifelong participants in the learning process.

School is More Than a Place

Today's state-of-the-art learning environments are no longer confined to one building or area. Learning takes place in labs, businesses, hospitals, museums, government offices, and homes. Students move throughout the community gathering resources to study different topics and themes in a variety of learning environments with an assortment of adult mentors. Community service and internships are becoming more a part of education so that applied, real-life learning is possible. Students of all ages take part in city planning projects, neighborhood improvement plans, tree planting initiatives, soil conservation efforts, and water quality study programs -- both on and off campus. Older students are matched with community mentors who provide learning experiences in banks, law offices, city halls, farms, stores, and other businesses. These experiences foster excitement about learning and encourage students to take innovative, entrepreneurial approaches to their education.

More and more schools also serve as hubs for electronic learning networks linking students, staff, parents, and the broader community. Everyone on the network can contribute their expertise to learning, and anyone can use the network to further their own education. These networks link any area -- urban, suburban, or rural -- with the global community, so users can establish relationships with other students and adults around the world.

Centers of Lifelong Learning

Schools are becoming multigenerational learning communities, open twelve months of the year, meeting a wide spectrum of community and cultural needs. Campuses include museums, libraries, daycare facilities, student-run businesses, conference centers, and fitness centers -- all of which are used by students, staff, and community residents. These shared facilities, along with parks, playgrounds, and swimming pools, serve as a center for community life and help break down the invisible barriers that formerly existed between schools and their surroundings. In fact, more and more adults are going back to their local schools to continue their own educations, especially to keep up with changing technology.

To ensure these schools play a central role in community life, every segment of the population served participates in the planning process. Teachers play a large part in design decisions, since they are responsible for creating the curriculum and the learning experiences that will occur on the site. Students are also involved, since an important goal is to build a place that is comfortable and enticing for children and young people. Parents and other community members give input on particular features of community life that can be incorporated into the school and on the services they would like to see available at the school site. These partners in the design process work with architects, developers, and consultants who understand, or who are willing to learn about, the developmental needs of students and about the manifestation of curriculum in architecture, building engineering, and landscape design.

Throughout the planning process, everyone is conscious of the need to plan for unforeseen uses and technological advances. Flexibility is a byword: no one wants to repeat the mistakes of the 1970s and '80s when even newly constructed schools needed major overhauls to accommodate new learning techniques and technologies. It is no longer acceptable for learning to be constrained by facilities; instead, facilities are designed to serve the varied and ever-changing needs of the next century's citizens.

Anne P. Taylor is a professor of architecture and director of the Institute for Environmental Education at the University of New Mexico's School of Architecture and Planning.

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