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Form Follows Function?
How innovative school architecture can transform how learning happens in schools
This is @edpsychprof's weekly newsletter for those interested in transforming schools to become places where children (and adults) can thrive.
I’m a little late this week because today’s newsletter includes interviews with two architects who are on the cutting edge of innovative school design, Tomas Eliaeson and Philip Donovan. Both work for Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, a company “dedicated to breakthrough ideas that create a better future.” And it really shows in their schools. (Hint—allow your email program to view images to see what I’m talking about.)
But first, I want to talk about a little bit about this idea of form vs function.
The form of the school facility is based on its underlying purpose and function. If you think that instruction should be standardized to the average student, that kids should be taught in large groups, in a lecture format, separated by grades, with security and control as the highest priority, then schools will look like what many public school buildings look like now: large cement rectangles, with isolated classrooms, small, closed windows, high chain link fences surrounding the school. In other words, they look like institutions, sometimes even prison, especially secondary schools.
As teachers and school leaders try to adopt innovative approaches to learning, they are finding that the school design can be a hindrance to what they are trying to implement.
How do you foster cross-grade collaboration when classrooms are separate from each other? How do you get students to learn “in the field” when outside access is difficult? How do you keep kids from being bored when all they do is move from room to room in a sterile building, indoors most of the day, breathing stale air and disconnected from what’s going on outside?
As the function of classrooms and schools is changing to accommodate 21st Century needs, so too does the form of schools—their design—need to change.
Let me give you an example.
Here’s a photo from the Little-designed NeoCity Academy in Osceola County, Florida:
Image courtesy of Littleonline.com
This unique room exemplifies an Impart space, one of the “immersive learningscapes” that are a hallmark of Little’s school designs. It’s a small room with tiered seating and multimedia technology where small groups of students can meet to practice presentations, where teachers can show multimedia presentations, and where virtual conferences can take place with outside experts who serve as advisors to student teams.
Notice the wall of open windows, which allows the classroom teacher outside the window to keep an eye on the students inside the room. The new Galileo School-Skyway campus being built in Sanford was designed by Little and will have similar immersive learningscapes throughout their buildings as well.
I asked Philip Donovan, the Little lead architect for both NeoCity and Galileo School about what he wished more people would know about school architecture. He said that schools are where kids really spend the most amount of time indoors. Architecture can become another tool for teachers to build curriculum around, to make learning spaces places of creation and wonder.
So how, specifically, does Little use architecture to create these innovative immersive learningscapes? Some of the key principles are:
Freedom of movement: By creating large, open learning spaces and using windows to frame the smaller learning spaces, students have freedom to move to learning spaces that fit what they are working on, all under the general supervision of the classroom teacher. According to Philip, this builds trust between students and teachers. The classroom supports flexible seating options as well—group tables, individual workspaces, tiered seating are a core feature of these designs.
Biophilic design: Tomas and Philip design the architecture of the school building to take advantage of the natural beauty around the school. A large window might be placed near a special tree. Windows open so that fresh air can circulate around the school. Outdoor learning spaces exist to blur the line between learning indoors or outside. Bolder colors are used that echo patterns in nature. According to Philip, their biophilic approach creates a physiological response in students. It can enhance students’ cognition and alertness and provide a sense of well-being.
Technology integration: Philip and Tomas recognize that technology is an essential part of the modern-day classroom, so they design with this in mind. Ideally, every surface should be an opportunity for writing. Whiteboards are on the walls. Other walls are painted with writeable white paint or chalk/slate. Outlets are available in all learning spaces and are easy for students to access. Different types of lighting exist to light the workspaces.
Fun and exploration: Even the paint colors tell a story. Philip called it “wayfinding.” They use a strip of color down a floor and up a wall to connect rooms in the school, identifying them as a small community. And the color echoes the school theme or region. For example, one building was themed around the regions of Virginia. Galileo School is themed around the solar system. To increase the sense of fun and exploration, there are unique features added to the school design, such as exposing the structural beams and columns so that students can see how the school is built. At Galileo Skyway, there will be even be a slide connecting the second floor with the first floor!
Innovative approach to learning: Little uses a variety of immersive learningscapes to foster more creative approaches to learning. Tomas told me about five specific types of spaces that invite that sense of creativity and wonder. In addition to the tiered seminar rooms pictured above, Little designs the following types of spaces for schools:
Thinkscapes - Focus areas: acoustically insulated spaces outfitted for technology where individual work, diagnostic testing, or one-on-one instruction can happen
Small Createscapes - Create spaces: window-framed areas with a conference table and chairs for teams to meet to do group work and projects
Discoverscapes - Discovery spaces: learning labs with sinks, technology, large tables for projects, maker spaces, and hands-on work
Impartscapes: (Tiered spaces) – pictured above
Large Createscapes - Collaborative spaces: shared classroom spaces where teachers, who volunteer to pair together, collaborate together to integrate subject matter learning. These spaces also allow more experienced teachers to mentor and support new teachers throughout the year
Exchangescapes - Exchange spaces: large, multipurpose areas of shared space for social interactions, meals, gatherings. Think large, Starbucks-type café vibe. Tomas notes how important shared spaces are for forming school culture and giving the students a sense of belonging. Here’s a picture of the shared space at NeoCity:
Image courtesy of Littleonline.com
What is hidden in this picture is the large multiple-screen wall at the front, where the students can watch events take place in real-time, like rocket launches or the presidential election. Note the balcony and the cozy individual chairs up there for lounging or reading a book.
You can see how these different spaces invite kids to think, create, wonder, and problem solve. Tomas is fond of referencing the neuroscience of learning, which greatly influences his school designs. “We all learn differently. There is no average. We have taken that approach and designed different learning spaces depending on the task. With the right teacher attitude and protocols for how to use these spaces respectfully, these learning spaces make for an amazing experience for students.”
So, what do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts--they help clarify my own thinking and contribute to the larger discussion on this topic. Plus, your responses help create community around this idea of school transformation. Who knows what good we can do together?
If you know of someone who would be interested in joining our school transformation community, please consider sharing this newsletter with them.