Building Blueprints (Facilities In Focus)

Design For the Educational Journey

Common area school design for specific ages


College and Career Academies, sometimes called Senior Academies, are a popular trend in high school curriculum delivery. These are transitional spaces for high school seniors, providing environments similar to what students will experience in the higher education setting or in the workplace.

However, the journey toward post-secondary education and the workforce begins long before the twelfth grade. In fact, the best approach to preparing students for a future of life-long learning is, as Stephen Covey so famously said, “To begin with the end in mind.” In an ideal world, elementary, middle and high school classrooms offer students a seamless and age-appropriate progression toward the next stages of life.

Designing for What’s Different

The emphasis on project-based and 1-to-1 learning at all grade levels has resulted in many similar trends within elementary, middle and high school classrooms.

Flexibility and technology are king, no matter where you go. However, the application of these ubiquitous trends should be very different based upon the age of the students being served.

At the elementary school level, all the elements of a Next Generation learning environment should still be present: informal spaces, collaboration spaces, technology space, presentation space and display space. Yet for younger students whose brains and social skills are still developing, there should be an emphasis on providing different learning opportunities within a central location. Classrooms grouped around small, extended learning areas offer a good mix of flexibility, utility and a strong sense of place. At some elementary schools, the traditional media center has disappeared, with the media and research resources being redistributed to the center of individual learning communities. This approach enriches the educational opportunities available to younger students, while keeping everything within the security of the students’ home base.

Flexible classroom space for K-12 collaboration


Flipped Roles. At the middle school level, the central learning studio often takes on a large role, giving students a greater level of freedom while providing a strong sense of structure.

Classroom design for middle school students should respect and reflect the significant changes adolescents are undergoing. Age 12 is the second-fastest stage of growth for humans, second only to the “Terrible 2’s.” As a result, the classroom or learning studio takes on a very different role for grades six, seven and eight. At many middle schools, the role of the classroom and the collaboration space is flipped. The central collaboration area becomes home base, with the surrounding classrooms acting as a resource. This arrangement gives middle school students a greater sense of freedom and more potential for movement, while still providing a sense of structure and formality.

At the high school level, the classroom begins to more strongly mirror students’ upcoming transition to the outside world. Developed minds require greater autonomy, so high schools feature many classrooms that serve as specialty labs, rather than a home base for a specific class. Many school districts prefer a gradual shift to such an arrangement, organizing the ninth, tenth and eleventh grade academic communities in a more traditional fashion, with classrooms and learning communities becoming more like universities or the corporate world as students get closer to graduation.

The College and Career Academy, or Senior Academy, is the fullest expression of the real-world learning environment. Here, students access a blend of media, seminar, huddle and maker spaces, as needed. College and Career Academies require school administrators and faculty to relinquish a large amount of control over minute-to-minute activities. Students now have the level of freedom and responsibility that they will experience in the real world, and the role of the classroom and learning studio reflects this level of autonomy. Oftentimes, schools that successfully create College & Career Academies are rewarded by seeing a new sense of pride and ownership among their seniors.

Student presenting in classroom


Home Base. Pairing classrooms with centralized collaboration areas provides elementary school students with a stimulating, yet secure, educational experience.

Creating Continuity

The educational journey is a continuum and, whenever possible, great care should be taken to make that journey a seamless one. For districts building new schools, it is important to anticipate what students have experienced before and what they will afterwards. For example, students moving from a state-of-the-art middle school to an outdated high school can experience a sense of culture shock due to the inequitable facilities. While funding mechanisms or district growth often necessitate the construction or renovation of schools out of sequence, there are still strategies for providing a sense of continuity across all grade levels.

First and foremost, invest in curriculum and technology before bricks and mortar. If you are working on a limited budget, make sure that students have equitable learning tools at every grade level. Next, focus on minor renovations to create equivalent environments. For example, if a new middle school features large collaboration spaces, try to create similar environments using relatively inexpensive mobile furniture in the corridors of the old high school. Students who are used to Next Generation facilities will make great use of the renovated spaces, even if they are not shiny and new.

Students undergo dramatic changes from kindergarten through twelfth grade, so why should their classrooms remain the same? By designing for the educational journey, we can make sure that every student enjoys an environment that is built to meet the needs of their evolving bodies and minds.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Authors

John Gladden, AIA, is a principal and project designer in the Dublin, Ohio office of Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments.

Steve Herr, AIA, LEED-AP, is director of Design for Fanning Howey, an integrated architecture, interiors and engineering firm specializing in learning environments.