THE DESIGN OF INSTRUCTIONAL SPACE: The interrelationships of what we know, what we do and what we need to do.

Schools, education, teaching and learning, as we define them today, will change dramatically within the next decade. The alignment of five powerful current issues will compel all in education to inspect the practices of the past and realign thinking for the future to meet the needs of all students. There are five major educational issues and subsequent architectural considerations to address those issues that are essential for our consideration.

The five major issues are:

1. increased accountability for each student as legislated in“No Child Left Behind” (NCLB);

2. increased use of technology in schools and education;

3. increased community use of school buildings and facilities;

4. increased focus on students“learning to learn” rather than the regurgitation of “facts”; and

5. increased competition from “third party” providers of educational services.

Increased Accountability for Each Student

If student achievement, as measured and reported by test results, is unacceptable and there is a mandate for dramatic improvement, how can we expect to improve if we continue to do everything the same way we’ve always done it? With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, every school in the nation is expected to show improvement in learning as measured by state defined improvements in test scores. This drive toward accountability will require all teachers to address the individual needs of each student in ways never before demanded.

The teacher/learner focus will need to change from “teacher-centered” to “student-centered,” with an emphasis on individualization and collaboration rather than “one size fits all”.

Does the traditional classroom we’ve designed, built and used in the past address this new focus on individualization? What adaptations need to be identified, considered and addressed in planning of schools and classroom space to address this mandate of “individualized instruction?”

Increased Use of Technology

In its January 2003 report, Classroom of the Future, BBC News stated, “A fusion of teaching, learning and technology is fast becoming reality.” Technology is having a dramatic impact on student learning, staff development, parent communication and public relations. It is no longer a question on whether to incorporate technology into schools, but how to harness this multi-faceted innovation to serve student needs. Numerous technological enhancements are available. The use of technology in instruction, active websites to serve as a communication link with parents, e-mail accessibility of all staff, teacher websites and data warehousing are just a few of the applications of technology. The availability of a robust technology infrastructure has dramatic implications for future building construction and renovation.

Increased Community Use of School Buildings and Facilities

A community contributes, through ever increasing tax dollars, to the enterprise we call education and the edifices we call schools. The buildings and facilities are used for 180 days a year, opening their doors at 8:00 am and closing at 4:00 pm. Much of the remaining time the building and facilities lie fallow.

An ever-increasing number of baby boomers are reaching retirement age. The demand for schools to serve the hungry academic appetites of vibrant middle-aged minds is inevitable. The classrooms, the computer labs, the gyms, the stadiums, the weight rooms, the fitness centers, the natatoriums — every part of our school defined in the past for students, will be opened for community use.

The planning and building of schools is traditionally done with input exclusively from the school community. Future planning should encourage a dialogue with other contiguous political entities and other potential users of the school. A change in the traditional planning process is essential to meet the educational needs of the new millennium.

What are the implications for a school district if the needs of these additional stakeholders are to be considered? Questions related to ingress and egress, security and ideal learning environments for all user needs to be addressed as a district plans a building or renovation project?

Increased Focus on Students Learning to Learn

The amount of knowledge (things we could know if we knew all) doubled from 1600 to 1900, doubled again from 1900- 1950, doubled again from 1950-1975 and has been doubling every 18 months since 1975. One could argue some ontological confusion between the definition of knowledge and information, but suffice it to say that there is a great deal more to know today than ever before. At the present time schools are organized to teach facts. Should the schools and the classrooms of the new millennium focus greater emphasis on students learning to learn and on students gathering, evaluating and using data to draw valid, reliable conclusions? Facts are important to create a common base of understanding, but have schools truly begun to organize to address higher order thinking skills, the analysis and synthesis of related knowledge and problem solving?

Increased Competition

Finally, I would like to acknowledge choices being made by our clients (parents and students) to leave public schools and attend non-public and private schools. Excellent private schools and academies, religiously oriented schools, charter schools and cyber schools are examples of the array of choices being offered to parents to provide education for their children. In many cases, governmental support and funding supports these alternatives. This initiative is relatively new and should only be ignored if “the way we’ve always done it” is good enough.

Given these five realities, a paradigm shift must take place in education and planners, in close communication with their clients, have the opportunity to enable new and better ways of constructing the learning environment for the students in the new millennium.

Considerations by Planners and Architects Related to These Events

To explore the planning and architectural considerations implicit in these major events, I have taken the liberty of combining the “Five Major Issues” into three topics for exploration. The three topics are “Teacher/Learner Focus,” “Technology Implications,” and “Community Use of School Buildings and Facilities.”

Teacher/ Learner Focus

The expectations of increased individual student accountability invite discussion for some very specific architectural applications. If students learn differently and more students of disparate ability are in the same classroom, then the classroom structure must be flexible enough to allow teachers to accommodate the needs of all students.

The key word here is flexibility, not only flexibility in design, but also flexibility of the instructor to adapt her/his instruction to the opportunities presented in the new design. The rendering above, though only a single example of a hundred variations on the theme, depicts opportunities to address students who learn by listening, students who learn by seeing and students who learn by doing. The flexible design also offers the opportunity for small group instruction, large group instruction and one on one interaction. The value of this diagram is not that it provides the ideal design, but rather that it stimulates new understanding, thoughts and ideas which need to be incorporated into the thinking of educators and architects in the future.

Technology Implications

The application of technology to learning raises a number of key planning and architectural issues. First and foremost is the configuration of a classroom and whether computers will be located in the classroom or in computer labs. What are the wiring, cabling and Internet requirements for a classroom? Will all classrooms be configured with the same technology, or will a hierarchy of technological applications be considered. There are other questions related to lighting, sight line requirements, sufficient square footage for high tech classroom and capacity of the “pipe” providing the technological connections.

Community Use of School Buildings

The increased community use of school buildings also has dramatic implications for planning and construction. The use of classrooms during evening hours or during the summer raises some interesting questions related to adaptability of a classroom, from a “teacher-owned” space to a vibrant learning environment for adults or other students. Security, storage of material and flexibility of the classroom space and material need to be considered. Ingress and egress from the building and classrooms along with security issues should also be considered before construction or renovation, rather than approached later as an afterthought.

A new variation on planning embraces the concept of school construction and planning as a joint planning exercise involving the school district and other community entities that will be using the school or school facilities. An example of this type of joint planning involves a school district building a natatorium and coordinating the planning of that facility with the municipality, youth association and/or other potential users of the facility.

H.L. Mencken once said, “There is a simple, direct wrong answer to every complex question?” No two school districts are alike, no two schools are alike, and no single set of solutions is applicable to all systems. It is incumbent on planners and architects to take the issues cited in this article into consideration. It is essential to pose the right thought-provoking questions to our clients so we can implement a mutually agreed upon, integrated set of solutions to maximize the impact of available resources to meet the changing educational needs of students in the classrooms of the new millennium.

Dr. Glenn F. Smartschan ED.D is an educational planner for Burt Hill, located in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at 412-344-8663.