Pods vs. Corridors

Last month in this space, I suggested three steps school districts may take to ensure that their new facilities will serve educational programs of the future while remaining comfortable and familiar for those of today’s teachers who want to keep working as they always have, usually in self-contained classrooms. The three included organizing classrooms around open or common space, rather than along corridors; ensuring that rooms are at least 900 sq. ft.; and organizing large schools so that they can be broken into small learning communities in the future.

Why Organize Classrooms Around Open or Common Space?
The problem with double loaded corridors is that they are simply passageways, often noisy, with intermittent banging locker doors. They are fine for moving people, but of little use for anything else. With rooms along corridors, it’s difficult to send students out to work in groups. They have neither the space nor equipment that they need. Place desks and chairs in the corridors, and the fire marshal should object. Double-loaded corridors effectively ensure that everything is done within the classroom, since there is no place to break out.
Instead, design your classrooms around common space, or in “pods” as they are often called. That has a number of advantages.

•    The common space can be used by small groups and/or individuals. Since the space is not a corridor, chairs and tables or desks can be placed around the area.
•    All rooms open on the pod, so students are visible to teachers in the surrounding rooms, providing a measure of supervision.
•    Teachers in surrounding rooms will have opportunity and space to talk with other teachers, as well as students.
•    It may never happen, but the open space should be large enough so that it can be used for a meeting or presentation to all of the students in the surrounding rooms.
•    Particularly in the lower grades, the open space could be used to set up a display or activity that might last for several weeks.
•    A large school can be operated as several smaller ones, based around the open space pods.
•    Special help can be provided to students who need it, comfortably, right outside their classrooms. There’s no need to waste time traveling.

These are just a few ways in which open space pods can facilitate different teaching and learning modes that might be desired in the future, activities that cannot be comfortably carried out in a school organized around double loaded corridors.

At the same time, the arrangement leaves the classrooms intact. A teacher can still shut his classroom door and “stand and deliver” if he likes. As a matter of fact, the room can be used exactly as it is used today — which, if the room is large enough, may very well include separating students into small groups around the room or giving individual students a chance to work by themselves while others are involved in group work.

Rooms organized around open space provide opportunity and flexibility. For example, a number of high schools are now offering interdisciplinary literature and history classes, so that students studying American history can also read and discuss the literature of Twain, Whitman, and others and understand why they wrote as they did when they did.

I spoke this spring with a group of high school teachers who were planning a program that would encourage such interdisciplinary classes. The teachers were excited about the curriculum but were frustrated by their school. They wanted to be able to group and regroup students, sometimes with as many as 100 together, more often in small groups and individual study. Their school had no usable space outside their classrooms. The best they could imagine was the possibility of tearing down walls to create some larger, but long and narrow, teaching areas.

I showed them a plan of a school with classrooms constructed around a common area and they immediately recognized the opportunities. With rooms ranged around common space, two or more classes can use classrooms and also expand into the common space. That cannot be done with classrooms ranged along a corridor.

The key is that a school built around a pod design does not force a teacher to change methodology, but should he or she or the next teacher want to, the pod provides options and opportunities that corridors do not. The architecture of the school will not get in the way of the program. Double-loaded corridors duplicate the past. Pods with common space allow the future.

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."