Here are eight key principles for effective school design in the 21st century.
The National Summit on School Design, convened by the American Architectural Foundation and Knowledge-Works Foundation, recently brought more than 200 participants from around the country to Washington, D.C. After discussing several school-design topics, summit participants agreed on eight key principles for effective school design in the 21st century. These are:
1. Design schools to support a variety of learning styles. Not all students learn the same way, studies show. In designing new schools, stakeholders should reexamine the idea of the traditional classroom setting and focus instead on new kinds of environments that can support student achievement. This requires greater flexibility to accommodate a range of learning scenarios, both inside and outside of school.
2. Enhance learning by integrating technology. Besides the use of technology tools in classrooms, recent advances also allow schools to better control heating, cooling, air flow, and noise and to improve communications with stakeholders. Consult students about what kinds of learning technologies they’d like to use in school, summit participants recommended–and don’t forget to train educators in their use.
3. Foster a “small school” culture. Though the size of a new school should be determined within the framework of a community’s needs, vision, academic goals, traditions, and economics, there are important benefits to developing a “small school” culture that fosters close relationships, participants said.
4. Support neighborhood schools. Look for ways to preserve neighborhood schools whenever possible, participants urged. Neighborhood schools allow many students to walk to school; strong neighborhood schools boost property values for nearby homeowners; and preserving neighborhood schools reinforces the link between the school and its community.
5. Create schools as “centers of community.” Many school districts are building schools that serve as the hub, or central resource, of the entire community. In these cases, the facility is used not only as a school but as a location for other community services, such as recreational centers or performing-arts spaces–fostering greater public support and playing an important role in the community’s health. If you choose this route, however, make sure you consider policies and design elements that will ensure the safety of students.
6. Engage the public in the planning process. This process should start early, participants said, allowing for community feedback long before final decisions are made. The process should include all school and community stakeholders, recognizing minority opinions as well. It might help to start with a “visioning process,” in which stakeholders agree what the school’s role in educating students and serving the community should be.
7. Provide healthy, comfortable, and flexible learning spaces. Summit participants overwhelmingly agreed that school leaders should strive to improve the quality, attractiveness, and health of their buildings. Research and experience have shown the impact of spatial configurations, color, lighting, ventilation, acoustics, and other design elements on student achievement. Far from luxuries, these elements can affect students’ ability to focus, process information, and learn.
8. Consider non-traditional options for school facilities and classrooms. Explore options for employing underused civic, retail, and other adaptable, non-school spaces, participants urged. Many cities have community assets such as museums, colleges, research labs, and other institutions that offer the potential for experiential learning and real-life applications of lessons.