Many of the challenges schools face today are connected to engaging all students, specifically those preparing for an ever-changing career landscape. As teaching approaches continue to evolve, educational facilities must adapt as well. Instead of focusing on creating specific spaces for innovation, the most successful schools utilize their entire footprint as a learning laboratory.
When it comes to fostering collaboration and innovation in schools, there are a few main strategies that we recommend to clients, including emphasizing increased access to technology and a flexible, multi-purpose design.
Today, technology must be both widespread and highly accessible, so exploration and learning can happen anywhere. It is no longer enough to have a dedicated space that houses fixed computers in one, central location. Students are entering with the expectation that technology is seamless, personal, and mobile. In response, schools are empowering learners with mobile devices that allow freedom from the traditional classroom or lab. Buildings are being equipped with robust wireless networks that extend to all areas of the building and beyond to the surrounding site and outdoor learning spaces.
Activating these in-between spaces and making them technology-friendly can be accomplished through small furniture, ledges, or work surfaces with bar height seating, similar to what you would find at your local coffee shop. Abundant power sources and a place to land for a few minutes enables schools to extend the learning environment beyond defined learning areas.
Televisions, projectors, and sound systems are also moving out of classrooms and into the in-between spaces. Students can now view and share their work on displays throughout a building, promoting the rapid and immediate sharing of ideas between peers. Utilizing project-based learning in team settings helps build important collaboration skills that are paramount to future success.
Architects must look at every space as an opportunity for children to explore and for teachers to encourage critical thinking and creative problem solving. Designing for flexible, dual-purpose spaces is key. For example, stairs can become mini amphitheaters, cafeterias can transform into fabrication labs, corridors are extensions of the classroom for individual learning and collaboration, and media centers are adjacent to innovation labs, allowing for cross-curriculum and shared spaces.
As the traditional classroom diminishes as the sole learning environment, the architecture must help facilitate this blurring of lines. Using elements, such as glass, sliding walls, and overhead doors, helps to break down barriers so teachers and students can more easily collaborate. Opening a line of sight into adjacent spaces makes learning communal, encourages teamwork, and creates a public forum for celebrating and observing student work.
Of course, when designing for flexibility architects must be cognizant of each student’s ability and desire to extend into other spaces. Pre-K through second graders’ needs and abilities are vastly different than older kids in the same elementary building. Each place must be flexible enough and appropriately designed for various levels of learning.
Younger grade levels may need flexible areas contained inside classroom walls. This can be accomplished by changing the shape of the room to accommodate different clusters of furniture types or by using multiple floor materials and scales to foster independent, individual learning within the confines of a classroom. To give these young learners the ability to move around the building and experience different learning environments, shared “commons” space outside the classroom, such as innovation labs, learning stairs, outdoor classrooms, etc., can be used by the entire class for project-based learning .
In mid-level schools, spaces begin to extend beyond the classrooms, but must be open and observable to teachers and administration. Movable glass walls or overhead doors allow the classroom to expand when needed, but still provide teacher oversight and mentorship. These schools also feature more specialized learning environments that can be leveraged when classrooms are at low utilization rates throughout the teaching day.
High school students have more diversified course work and are being challenged to self-direct within the school’s guidelines. Highly flexible spaces of many different sizes and environments sprinkled throughout the school ensures students will be able to find a place that gives them the ability to work alone or in small groups.
ACI Boland is taking the lead with educators to develop spaces that provide each child with the opportunity to learn in a place that fits their unique needs. Inquiry-based design methodologies and post occupancy evaluations increase the understanding of the changing needs of educators, learners, and families. This data is then translated into facilities that offer the best outcomes for our communities.