Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Small Is BIG: Breaking Down Schools to Break Down Barriers

The way space is organized can give school a powerful sense of community.

October 24, 2005

Tasmania, Australia, is no ordinary place. And the Reece Community High School, in Devonport, Tasmania, is no ordinary school setting. One of its buildings houses 100 students in four "principal learning areas," or PLAs (classrooms is not in the vocabulary here). The large rooms incorporate multiple activity centers that flow into one another, and each room connects to the outdoors. Teachers have specific places to work, and all four PLAs can share a common area. Notably missing are the long corridors typical of many schools. Walking through this relaxed, intimate setting, it's easy to forget you are on a larger campus that accommodates 600 students.

Reece students frequently enthuse about a sense of belonging fostered by being part of a successfully designed small learning community, or SLC, as architects and school designers dub such facilities. The SLC phenomenon is an offshoot of the small-schools movement, which has been gathering steam steadily over the past several years in the United States and beyond. With grant money from influential organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates and Annenberg foundations, and with school systems themselves investing heavily to break down the scale of their larger schools, SLCs appear to be the manifestation of a permanent shift toward thinking small.

Defining Small

"Small learning communities" is not a widely used term, and no universally accepted definition of small exists in this context, perhaps because size is subjective. But there is a growing consensus among progressive educators that small, used in the context of an SLC, should refer to no more than 150 students -- preferably fewer. There may be a scientific basis for this limitation. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell refers to evolutionary biology as the reason human beings have what he calls a "social-channel capacity" that limits the number of people they can effectively interact with. Gladwell quotes British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who contends that "the figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship."

SLCs are a relatively new phenomenon, so not much research data exists to support the approach. Some dramatic individual successes have added steam to the SLC movement, however. Perhaps the best known is that of the Julia Richman Education Complex, in New York City (see the Edutopia article, " Phoenix Rising: A New School Design Fosters New Attitudes Toward Learning "). Once a large, comprehensive high school with a very high dropout rate and rife with all the other problems of many inner-city schools, Julia Richman is now a complex of six small schools housed within the same old building. Nearly all its students graduate, and almost 95 percent go to college.

Though this story is hardly typical, it does point out that the secret of an SLC may lie in its ability to reconnect students with caring adults. The Julia Richman experience also shows that this connection is more likely to happen when the cohort of teachers and students remains below some manageable number, and they work together in a space they can call their own.

The SLC, by Design

The most important condition for an SLC's success seems to lie in the single, simple word community. The key is to create autonomous or semiautonomous student groupings so that the sense of smallness is real and doesn't come across as an administrative gimmick. It's a prime responsibility of those who design schools to support the kind of autonomy needed for an SLC to be successful.

SLCs are not unprecedented. It's arguable that a good traditional small school provides the best template, because such an environment is really an SLC by another name. Any successful SLC has to replicate the kind of proximity schools in small rural towns once had naturally. When we designed Harbor City International Charter School, in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, we wanted to create a place where the staff and the school's 200 students felt connected. The self-contained distribution of elements at this school is vastly different than the typical classroom/corridor arrangement typical of most school architecture.

Form for Function

At Harbor City, a variety of spaces combine to create a completely autonomous learning environment. Square footage normally taken up by corridors is now devoted to student workstations and breakout areas for social learning. Soft seating "oases" can be used not only for individual studying and collaborative learning but also for eating lunch. Though the layout seems open and capacious, this kind of approach can usually be done within the same overall space used for a traditional corridor-based plan. The significant difference is that in this kind of SLC, all the space is used for learning and student activities.

Though it's not always easy to duplicate the benefits of small schools, such as Harbor City, within larger schools, it is possible. The design of Herriman Middle School, in Herriman, Utah, shows how a number of SLCs can be combined to create a larger school. At Herriman, which opened this year, we developed a series of SLCs along a main "learning street." Each contains connected learning studios, central multiuse learning spaces, teacher work areas that overlook those spaces, and direct access to the outside. At Herriman, each SLC is a semiautonomous unit, but students share larger elements in the school such as the auditorium, the media center, and the physical fitness facility.

Life Lessons

In all the successful examples of SLCs mentioned here, a common theme is the need for self-contained social space. High Tech Middle School, in San Diego, provides a good example of how such a space can be configured. (See the Edutopia article, "A High-Tech School with a Down-Home Feel".)

Today, many schools that at first look traditional have already begun to group students into what are called advisories, rather than classrooms or homerooms. We developed a pattern for an advisory-based SLC that describes how eight groups of ten- to fifteen-student advisories might be arranged around a central cafe and project area. Such an arrangement would include four breakout areas -- somewhat casual, collaborative spaces with soft seating -- and a room for presentations.


This is the idea that went into our design of the High School for Recording Arts (also known as Hip Hop High), in St. Paul, Minnesota, a school that follows few of the old rules. We created a hierarchy of spaces rather than basing everything on the single building block of the traditional classroom, starting with student workstations at the smallest level and moving up to performance spaces, and we left open the possibility of many configurations of spaces and activities. For instance, to emphasize the intent of the school, we placed an advisory area next to a performance area. This model builds all aspects of the plan around learning activities.

Each year in the United States, $30 billion is allocated to school construction. The lives of hundreds of thousands of students, not to mention tens of thousands of teachers and other staff, is profoundly affected by the learning environment, so it's time to think differently about schools -- to think, literally, outside the box. The growing move toward SLCs is an important step in the right direction for the organization, the architecture, and the spirit of tomorrow's schools.

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