Design Today With Tomorrow In Mind

An architect told that me he and a space consultant had developed a very flexible plan for a modern high school for 2,000 students, located in an upscale suburban community, only to have the plans rejected by the school’s teachers. According to the teachers, the school was doing quite well as it was, there was no need for smaller learning communities, the departmental setup should be continued, and rooms off double-loaded corridors worked just fine.

And so, a very expensive new building is under construction designed for a time when teachers were the font of all information, technology was an add-on rather than basic to learning, students spent most of their time in class listening to the teacher, teachers of science never spoke to teachers of English or history, and each subject was taught as if no other subject existed.

That program apparently works in that community, and it may well work in others. As a matter of fact, many teachers, parents, and administrators believe it could be the best possible means of teaching for the 21st century, just as it was for the 19th century and the 20th.

I doubt it, but they could be right.

But suppose they are not. Suppose the research that shows that students do better in smaller learning communities is correct. Suppose computers and other technologies do change the way teachers and students work with one another. Suppose space is needed for individual students and groups of students, as well as the whole class. Suppose that education in the 21st century will be different from what it was 100 years ago. Will the new facilities that are being built now support (or at least get out of the way of) new and different ways of instruction?

If teachers want self-contained classrooms and expect to continue teaching for many years as they have in the past, then it may be foolish to insist that they work in conditions that they find uncomfortable. On the other hand, is it possible, in this case, to have one’s cake and eat it too? Providing flexible, changeable facilities for the future does not mean you must force teachers to change their programs today or to use facilities they do not like.  Here are three design concepts high schools can adapt that will permit changed methods of instruction in the future without forcing teachers to change the way they work today.
1.    Eliminate double-loaded corridors. Instead, think in terms of self-contained classrooms formed around an open space, or “pod” as it’s often called. Teachers will still have classrooms with doors, but they will also have the option to use space outside the classroom where students can work in groups without disturbing others and without blocking passageways.

2.    Provide a minimum of 900 sq. ft. in every classroom. Most activities still take place in classrooms. They need sufficient space for desks, chairs, and tables, for students to move around, to work in groups and as individuals, to listen to the teacher or watch presentations, to work with computers, and otherwise to engage in activities that go on in virtually all classrooms today. A room with 900 sq. ft. will provide the space needed. Don’t be tempted to save a few dollars by designing smaller rooms that will limit your district’s program for the next 50 years.

3.    Make small learning communities possible.  You may be satisfied with the size of your schools, even if they fall into the “large” category. But there is increasing evidence that children do better academically and socially in small learning communities. If you are building a new school, even if it is going to be very large, design it so that it works today as a single school, but can also work in the future if small learning communities are desired. The same is true if you are adding to an existing building. As an example, rather than build a new science wing to which all students must travel, disperse science around the building or create two science centers by upgrading what exists and putting additional facilities in a different area of the building.
Adopting these three concepts at the very beginning of the design and construction process can result in a new or expanded high school that is comfortable with today’s programs, but will also support the different educational programs that are bound to emerge over the 50 years the building will be in use.

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."