Campus Design

Designing for Learning Thrill

By Dr. David Cupolo, Ph. D.

We all experience boredom at times. Not everything can be thrilling and engaging. However, this should not be the prevalent case for student learning in several classrooms. Over the past several years, data collected on student learning experiences often paint a dismal picture. Students are disengaged and bored. What can school leaders and architects do to combat this crisis in schools?

In 2016, world-renowned educational researchers Hattie and Donoghue proposed a new “Conceptual Learning Model: Skill, Will, and Thrill”. This model was formulated by synthesizing various learning strategies that teachers and students can utilize at the “skill” and “will” stages of learning, which lead to the “thrill” (Hattie & Donoghue, 2016). As this was a new model, I sought to understand how instructional leaders conceptualize and perceive one aspect of this model: learning thrill. Through interviews, I explored how instructional leaders understand this new concept of learning thrill, explicitly examining how it manifests in classroom settings regarding how it looks, sounds, and feels when learning thrill occurs. Additionally, I wanted to understand the key factors in how those classrooms use spaces for learning that create an environment conducive to fostering these learning experiences for students.

The State of Education for Numbers of Students

In an article published on September 28, 2022, by U.S. News & World Report titled “Why Your Child Might Be Bored at School and What to Do About It,” author Gail Cornwall discusses research indicating that students feel bored for one-third to half of their time in school. Cornwall highlights a survey that links boredom to troubling high-school graduation rates (Cornwall, 2022). The U.S. Every Student Succeeds Act mandates that school districts report these rates, which remains challenging for many high schools. According to Cornwall’s survey, boredom is responsible for nearly half of all high-school dropout cases. Moreover, a study reflecting John Hattie’s findings reported in Visible Learning shows that boredom has a negative effect size of -.47 on student learning, with the majority of 1,520 students reporting negative emotions about their learning experiences when surveyed (Hattie, 2021). The evidence is clear: Students need environments that foster deeper, engaging learning experiences in which they can interact and discuss their learning with each other more.

What Is Learning Thrill?

Imagine classrooms where students are actively engaged, collaborating with peers, tackling challenges head-on, and experiencing the deep satisfaction of mastering new concepts. My colleagues, this is the essence of “learning thrill” – a state where students find joy, not just in the outcome, but in the process of Learning.

Deeply Engaging Learning Environments to Increase Learning Thrill

  • Inductive Learning Storage and Organization Areas: Inductive learning is a broad category that includes various instructional approaches such as inquiry, problem-based, project-based, case-based, discovery, and just-in-time teaching. Learning spaces should support teachers in easily storing and organizing multiple instructional materials for students to access for designing, creating, and presenting projects connected to learning targets and success criteria.
  • Collaborative Learning: Collaborative Learning is an educational approach where two or more students work together to tackle a learning activity, either by pursuing a course curriculum or trying to figure out a solution to a problem.
  • Multipurpose Space: As adults do, students prefer specific spaces to work together. Students might prefer the floor in the corner of a classroom, being out in the hall, or even in an open learning commons area. Reimagining how existing classroom and hallway spaces can be transformed into flexible learning areas increases student agency and increases their positive emotional learning experiences.
  • Flexible Seating: Flexible furniture readily supports redesigning learning environments—use of furniture that can be easily reconfigured to create areas for collaborative groups.
  • Technology-Supported Spaces: Many students also have digital devices. Therefore, tables, display screens to project onto, and mobile boards should include various power source outlets.
  • Outdoor Learning Spaces: Outdoor learning areas also provide opportunities for flexible, collaborative learning spaces where students can conduct inductive learning projects. Students can meet learning targets and success criteria in many ways, such as creating gardens, exploring ecosystems in their local areas, and enhancing school sites.

Challenges and Considerations

Budgetary considerations always exist when designing and building new schools and retrofitting current ones. Architects and school leaders must balance the educational benefits to teachers and students and the long-term costs of creating learning environments. Retrofitting old buildings for new educational paradigms also presents structural challenges. However, the data is clear that students need to be more engaged and have more agency in the learning process. Innovation in school architecture is necessary to meet the needs of today’s learners. The challenges can be overcome by providing multipurpose spaces and outfitting classrooms and other learning spaces with flexible furniture, which is necessary for deeper Learning.

The Role of School Architects in Designing for Thrill

Collaboration with educational leaders is essential for designing learning environments, whereby learning thrill experiences for students are fostered. School architects should seek to understand pedagogical goals and learning strategies critical for designing and creating educational spaces that cater to students and educators’ specific needs and objectives. Integrating educational insights into architectural planning involves incorporating best practices and educational research findings into the design process. By collaborating with academic leaders, architects can create spaces that look aesthetically pleasing and support effective teaching and learning methods.

Embracing innovative ideas and technologies is crucial in staying ahead of the curve in architectural design for educational facilities. By being open to innovative approaches and innovative technologies, architects can create spaces that are visually appealing but also functional and efficient for many enabling conditions for learning thrill.

Leading the shift towards modern educational facilities that support deep Learning involves designing spaces that encourage collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity among students. Architects can create environments that promote deep learning and student engagement by incorporating elements such as flexible learning spaces, natural lighting, and interactive technologies. By working closely with educational leaders, architects can ensure that the design of the school or learning environment aligns with the desired outcomes and fosters a conducive learning environment.

Dr. David Cupolo, Ph. D., has 18 years of educational leadership experience and is currently the principal of St. James Intermediate School in Horry County, South Carolina. The school, which opened eight years ago, is a non-trivial school designed by SfLA architects and furnished by Meteor Education. Dr. Cupolo consults on school design, environment, culture, and instructional strategies to enhance educational settings and pedagogical practices.