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Trend: Designing schools for the way students learn

Trend: Creating teaching buildings

The 2007 and 2008 design award submissions suggest an emerging trend toward designing schools around the way students actually learn. This would represent a significant shift, because schools have traditionally been designed primarily around the needs and interests of those who participate in the planning process: the adults. Of course effective teaching is as important as effective learning, but school design may be seeking a different balance.

What are the critical differences? A student-centered learning environment offers a lot of different learning spaces. This reflects a better understanding about how students grow and learn: that the concept of developmentally appropriate pertains far beyond primary school and that individual learning styles do really matter.

Designers can provide this spatial variety by reclaiming circulation space to create extended learning areas; by being thoughtful about room shape, size and FFE; and by coaxing multiple uses from such traditional spaces like cafeterias and gyms. But simply finding the space is not sufficient: connectivity is crucial to the effectiveness of these diverse learning spaces.

It is critical that some of these spaces be intentionally designed to foster collaboration. The old model called working together “cheating”; but the new one recognizes that working together is what we all do every day. We need an environment that supports this new model.

The Space Formerly Known as the Classroom

Classrooms now have blurred edges, operable partitions or rollup garage doors that allow students and activities to spill out into adjacent learning spaces—and to the outside.

People are coining alternatives to the word classroom—such as learning zone—to indicate that this space is something deeper and more purposeful, and also to free their thinking from the patterns of the past. The projects that merited design awards stretched the interpretation of classroom.

Some schools aggregate classroom area to create one large space, say 3,000 square feet for 90 students, who move around in that space, from teacher to teacher and learning area to learning area.

Student-Centered: Appealing, Engaging, Connected

Schools at all levels should be appealing, engaging learning environments. Like other people, students of all ages respond to an environment that is full of light and color, that is beautiful, that has visual interest and meaning.

Some schools are designed to be teaching buildings, incorporating features that are meant to be explicitly instructional. Green schools often teach sustainability; and many schools expose students to engineering by revealing structural elements and building systems. But schools can teach a variety of other subjects, including science, history and art.

Incorporating real-world design references—from the mall, from the airport—rather than solely traditional school references, contributes to a lively, engaging student-centered learning environment.

Another way to achieve student-centeredness is to create a student-oriented scale, not just making sure the windowsills are low enough for young children to see over but also being sensitive to the height of the space and avoiding the sense of being surrounded by a massive building.

Multiple use and innovative adaptability are key to establishing—and maintaining—a vibrant, student-centered learning environment. For example: creating a big, open activity space that, through its utilities, integrity and the definition of its wall systems and lighting, can be a science lab, then a tech center, then a black box theater, then an art room. It is like set design: creating flexible space that can be easily adapted to stage an ongoing sequence of educational programs.

Portable technology is an important element in creating an environment where learning flows from activity to activity and place to place. In a student-centered school, every space is part of the learning environment; that means Internet access throughout the facility and, where appropriate, projection and audio enhancement capability.

Technology has changed schools—or if not the schools themselves, students’ tolerance for them. Educators talk about “letting” education go beyond the classroom, but in reality it would involve a Herculean—and ultimately futile—effort to keep it inside the classroom.

It is not only the virtual community that beckons. Increasingly schools are finding ways to move students out into the resources in their communities. Conceptually it can like the hub and spokes of a wheel, with the school at the center, a base for students as they find their way out into the community through an array of partnership programs. Across the country, STEM schools have developed partnerships that enable students to pursue educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math in places where people are actually doing science, technology, engineering and math—at a community college, a research laboratory or an engineering firm.

There has been for some time an ongoing conversation about the future of schools in the U.S., and the need for new approaches and innovative ideas, particularly in public high school education. Architects and the clients they work with play are positioned to play an important role in helping to guide this conversation.

Examples of Creating Learning Spaces

Rosa Parks School at New Columbia Community Campus Excellence (Citation Award 2008)

Cristo Rey Jesuit High School (Citation Award 2008)

Nueva Hillside Learning Complex (2008 Award of Excellence)

Mat Su Career and Technical High School (Citation Award 2008)

Bioscience High School (Merit Award 2008)

Resources for Architects

Education Week STEM schools

Ohio STEM Learning Network (

Learning by Design 2008

Learning Styles

    Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1992). Teaching elementary students through their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades 3-6. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

    Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1993). Teaching secondary students through their individual learning styles: Practical approaches for grades 7-12. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


The AIA and the Committee on Architecture for Education would like to thank the following individuals for contributing their time and expertise to developing these papers through the interview and review process: Jeanne Jackson, AIA, LEED (Partner, VCBO Architecture); Gerald (Butch) Reifert, AIA (Partner, Mahlum Architects); Ronald E. Bogle, Hon. AIA (President & CEO, American Architectural Foundation); John Weekes, AIA (Partner, Dull Olson Weekes Architects); Amy Yurko, AIA (BrainSpaces); Dr. W. Bryan Bowles (Superintendent, Davis School District, UT.


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