Spotlight on Space Design

Typically, teachers and architects are responsible for developing strategies to enhance learning spaces in schools, from the individual classrooms to the library. However, Dr. Robert Dillon, director of Innovation and Learning at University City Schools in St. Louis, believes that in order to envision long-term solutions for transforming learning spaces, school building, and district leaders should be involved in the design process. He has provided us with some pointers of how school leadership can get involved with space design.

Why is it important that school leaders take part in space design, instead of leaving it up to architects or teachers?

Visionary leadership is essential for all organizational change in schools, and with the growing desire by teachers and learners to sync instructional design and environmental design, it is more important than ever for leaders to have a designer's mindset. Teachers can do amazing things to design their spaces, but there is a multiplier effect when the leadership of the school embraces comprehensive space design that impacts all of the common spaces in the school.

How can space design facilitate new ways of student learning?

When first coauthoring The Space: A Guide for Educators, we truly thought that our ideas and suggestions for schools would be supporting modern instructional changes, but an interesting thing happened. We found that we were actually starting with the space and then moving into shifts that supported engagement and joy in the classroom. Many of my projects are now about bringing more experiential learning to students and finding the environment and technology tools to support these changes. This process also opens dialogue with students by bringing their feedback to the center of the design work.

If school leaders don’t have much extra time to devote to space design, what are some key areas of the school that they should prioritize first?

There are four areas of every school that tell the non-verbal story of the school. First, the outside of the school building and the public signage is the only space that most of the community see. It is essential that we use our signage to talk about learning and the mission of the school, and we do all we can to keep the outside fresh, clean, and inviting. Second, the entryway of the building sets the tone of the rest of the building. Leaders should include images of students and learning as well as artifacts of learning. Third, learning should also be happening in the hallways. Design elements around color and wayfinding can be the positive energy that students and teachers need. Fourth, large common spaces such as libraries allow for a variety of design elements that teachers and students can tinker with and consider for their classroom spaces.

Is it necessary for schools and school districts to use excess funds to implement space design, or are there some low-cost strategies for school leaders?

Having funds dedicated to this work can accelerate the impact, but leaders can go ahead and encourage teachers to try new ideas around student choice and movement in the classroom. They are also modernizing their spaces through deliberate addition by subtraction, which creates space to see the learning environment in a new light. Leaders can pursue adding more writable space throughout the school to promote students having the opportunity to visualize learning and think out loud in collaboration with peers.