The Learning Building

After the Civil War the United States began the process of developing the“Industrial Model” school. Box-like classrooms along a double-loaded corridor were seen as the most efficient way to educate and“Americanize” the large number of immigrants coming to the United States. Despite the dramatic changes in architecture, construction science, technology, and lifestyle, the same basic model for school design is still used. While there have been upgrades, improvements, refinements, and enhancements made to the basic model, this improved environment of better lighting, ventilation, and technology is still housed in a box-like classroom along a double-loaded corridor. It seems that design of nearly every other kind of space has evolved, but the “Industrial Model” school remains relatively unchanged since the turn of the last century.

The new global economy is moving toward rewarding innovation and innovators. Innovation requires creative and critical-thinking skills as well as the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas. These skills are developed as students develop a thirst for learning by being encouraged to learn through self-discovery or other non-traditional methods that may work for them. Classrooms then become portals or points of access permitting the students to safely engage the greater world rather than serving as defined destinations or places. The acknowledgement by educators of the variety of ways in which students learn would seem to shift the emphasis from teaching and management to one of learning through self-discovery and critical and creative thinking. For so long, students have been seen as “wards” of the school rather than as “clients” of the school. In the future, schools should market what they offer in order to attract students. Viewing education as a means to promote learning, rather than an institution focused on managing and teaching students, will better prepare students for active roles in a global economy.

Moving away from schools that focus on managing students so they can be taught requires creation of spaces that allow students to learn through simulation, rehearsal, research, practice, display, and exhibition. This calls for flexibility in design of spaces and in the furnishings placed in the spaces. Fewer built-in fixtures allow greater flexibility within the space. Delineating areas within a room with furniture storage units serving as mobile walls allow for quick and easy re-configuration to accommodate various learning activities. To better prepare students to compete in the global economy, design must move away from the concept of “teaching stations” and move towards the concept of “learning environments.” The traditional classroom model, with one teaching station with chalkboards/whiteboards in front of neatly arranged rows of student desks, is rooted in the notion that schools are for teaching and management rather than learning and discovery.

Learning environments need not be limited to classrooms. The entire building can be viewed as filled with potential learning environments. With an eye towards safety and security, the areas outside the building can be used as learning environments as well. Land labs using existing streams and the topography of the area around the school promote student exploration and critical thinking in the areas of science and ecology. Naturally occurring features such as hills or valleys provide wonderful opportunities to study effects of erosion or to learn of climatic changes related to elevation. Pictures in a textbook of such phenomenon are one-dimensional at best; seeing and being are considerably more effective in dynamic learning. Within the building there are fascinating learning environments that are never used. When studying the circulatory system of the body, why can’t the elaborate plumbing system of the building be used to demonstrate the principle? Simple duplicate gauges and meters placed in safe locations within the building allow students to monitor utility usage at different times of the day or to learn how outside influences like wind, temperature, and solar activity affect utility usage of the building. This concept can be extrapolated to explain how outside influences like activity level, temperature, and hydration affect physical performance of the human body. Why can’t shapes and colors be incorporated into corridor floors to reinforce learning as students move from one area of the building to another? A few areas of the structure of the building left exposed can reinforce student learning about dynamic and static loads as part of a physics class. Consider how much more space might be available for learning if classrooms weren’t the only areas being utilized. While such a concept requires a move away from traditional management of student activities, it promotes self-discipline and positive decision-making from a standpoint of trust and confidence in the students by school personnel.

The Lorain City School District in northern Ohio is involved in a partnership with the Ohio School Facilities Commission to address all of the facility needs in their district. The district’s commitment to technology to support student achievement is witnessed throughout the district. At their own expense, the district is placing interactive whiteboards in every classroom at every grade level throughout the district. This one innovation alone has positively impacted test scores and is one of the most popular tools for student learning regardless of grade level.

At the new middle schools, the cafetorium becomes a learning environment — in addition to a lunchroom at lunchtime — with the inclusion of a trivia game using questions gleaned from proficiency test preparation materials. Students who meet attendance and behavior guidelines are given the privilege of using a device with which they can select answers to trivia questions being shown on large screens throughout the space. Patterned after similar trivia games at restaurants and sports bars, this activity makes learning fun. Students earn points by winning rounds of the trivia games that they can exchange for privileges or items in the school store. Attendance has improved and behavior problems have decreased as students seek to “qualify” to have one of the voting devices during lunch. An activity that may have been seen as dull and unexciting now has students positively modifying their behavior in order to participate.

In the Northern Local School District in southern Ohio, at Sheridan Middle School, there is a message board that typically displays school activities for the community; at student bus pick-up and drop-off times these boards scroll vocabulary words and definitions drawn from the state proficiency test preparation materials. As students wait to board the bus, a learning environment is created for them in a non-traditional place and time. Teachers report that even students who don’t consciously read the message board improve their vocabulary, because there is subliminal recognition of the word and definition.

Other ideas for creating alternative learning environments may include using display cases or niches within the building to display artifacts or “unknown” items for students to identify. This encourages investigation and research to identify the item and its use. Rewards of some kind can be awarded to the “winning” investigator. The item could change weekly or bi-weekly to correspond with curriculum content at the time. Simple things like using lettering and numbering of seating in a gymnasium can facilitate teaching multiplication or other math skills. A simple weather station installed at the school can be a constant source of learning about atmospheric phenomenon and how they affect everything from building heating and cooling to plant growth. Corridors provide a marvelous “canvas” on which students can display work related to curriculum or creative expressions of painting, drawing, photography, or other artwork. Guest artists from the community, or even regionally/nationally renowned artists, can be invited to display work that can then be the focus of study and learning about a particular period in history.

The “Industrial Model” of schools so prevalent in the last century relies on teachers to “teach,” and provide limited opportunities for learners to learn. Consideration of learning environments during design can provide the opportunity for teachers to be facilitators and enablers of learning. The greatest volume of learning in life occurs from birth to age five, when little is actually “taught.” Much of this learning is self-directed by self-discovery and inquisition. Children slowly lose this quest for knowledge as they rise through the grades in school, because they come to rely on being “taught.” A learning building seeks not to limit knowledge acquisition to a set teaching station, but rather provides learning environments that promote innovation, self-discovery, and both critical and creative thinking. Being “taught” implies a boundary when, in fact, learning is boundless.

Jay Richards is the principal and president of McDonald, Cassell & Bassett, Inc. Larry Peterson is a principal and director of Marketing.