Putting Facilities Into Words

Not so many years ago, when a school district needed a new elementary school, it specified the number of classrooms and then the architect added a“multipurpose” room with a stage to serve as gym, lunchroom and performance area, one office for the principal and another for the nurse. In wealthy districts, a library was included and sometimes space for art and music. The rooms were arranged along a double-loaded corridor with the multipurpose room on one end.

That was it; nice and simple. Need an elementary school? How many classrooms? That was the extent of the specifications. Dozens of those schools still exist around the nation, many of them built during the Post-War Baby Boom era.

Elementary schools built in the last decade have been more involved. Classrooms still dominate, but libraries now appear in almost every elementary school often along with computer labs, music and art rooms, and a physical education space separate from the cafeteria.

And then there are the special rooms — for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, special education, office and teaching spaces for a range of services and more. The elementary school today has become much more than a series of classrooms and one large gathering space.

Despite these changes, however, the basic vocabulary of elementary school design has remained pretty much the same. Boxes of space (classrooms) are provided for teaching, and while those boxes may vary, the basic building blocks remain the same. Too little thinking goes into the development of new concepts and new understanding of how children learn, concepts that often are spoken about by teachers, principals and others but are seldom reflected in the schools we build.

New Thinking in a New Book

In a new book,“The Language of School Design,” two experienced schoolhouse architects, Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding, have set out to create a means for school administrators and architects, working together, to create schools for the 21st Century — schools designed around recent knowledge about the ways children learn.

Looking at classrooms, for example, the authors note that the original model was based on control and supervision. Within the room, the teacher could impart knowledge. When students left the room, they went into a long corridor where they could be observed. Since bells were used to tell students and teachers when a period ended and a new one began, this came to be known as a “bells and cells” model, a very efficient way to run a school but not a particularly creative one. It was a factory model, with everybody doing the same thing at the same time.

Education today is very different from that model (and the jobs to which graduates will go after school are very different, too). There are many sources of information, and students use them in different ways at different times since they learn differently and exhibit multiple intelligences.

The authors identify at least 18 different “learning modalities” that a modern classroom must support, ranging from the teacher lecture to independent study, peer tutoring, project- and technology-based learning, distance learning, story telling, hands-on, student presentations and more.

“A traditional cells and bells design will come up short against that list,” the authors note, “since it is primarily set up for the lecture format.” And that’s where they begin to change the language of school design, calling, for example, for the development of The Learning Studio rather than the classroom, learning suites that bring two or more learning studios together and small learning communities that are formed within the larger school.

Going beyond the spaces themselves, the book talks about ideas and situations that need to be considered in school design — vistas, indoor-outdoor connections, casual eating, campfire space and transparency, as examples, concepts, terms and considerations that I have certainly seldom heard discussed during design meetings I have attended.

You may not find anything startlingly new in “The Language of School Design,” — you may end up building the same bells and cells school that your district or firm has always used — but reading this book cannot help but cause you to think about space and school design in a different way, from a different angle.

It is going to force any architect and administrator to ask and consider a different set of questions about how education can, should and will work. And the answers to those questions may very well result in a school better able to respond to the needs of the 21st Century. Give it a shot.

Copies of The Language of School Design can be ordered through the Designshare Website .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."