New Rules for Educational Interiors

The classroom as we understand it is changing, and the evidence is all around us. Schools are increasingly implementing project-based learning programs such as STEM, New Tech and Project Lead the Way. School administrators are speaking a new language, punctuated by words like student-centered, self-directed and future-proofed. The ubiquitous nature of technology — including the introduction of hand-held devices — has given students and teachers a new-found mobility and freedom to explore their environment.

In short, the way we teach and learn has dramatically evolved during the past decade. And yet, too often, our school facilities lag behind our understanding of how to best educate our children. To truly take advantage of the benefits of STEM, New Tech and other types of curricula, we must first reinvent the makeup and structure of the classroom. That means discarding many of the old rules regarding educational interiors and embracing a new set of maxims modeled on supporting a collaborative and team-based approach to instruction.

Rule #1: Flexibility Is King
In the old days, the structure of a classroom would barely change from the first day of the school to the last. As a result, when planning for new or renovated facilities, districts would purchase as much built-in cabinetry as possible. Furnishings such as desks and tables would be aligned in rows, immovable. “Buy as much of what is cheapest” was the rule of the land.

But to effectively support a project-based learning environment, today's classrooms must place a premium on flexibility. The ideal classroom is one in which fixtures and furnishings are durable and light-weight enough that they can easily be rearranged by students and teachers.

Within this approach, it is best to provide a "kit of parts" comprised of chairs, desks and shelving on casters; movable panels; movable partitions and interactive whiteboards on carts. These elements make up the fundamental building blocks of the classroom and can be arranged to meet almost any instructional need.

Providing a variety of seating configurations is also a key concern — bean bags for individual study, soft seating for one-on-one meetings, ganging tables for small group work. Each type of seating offers students a different kind of experience and plays an important role in the project-based learning process.

To provide maximum flexibility, it is also important to provide a liberal amount of charging stations and places for students to "plug in." Raised access floors are gaining popularity, as are chairs with power sockets in the arms.

Rule #2: Make It Enticing
Along with fixtures and furnishings, color is a key component of a student-centered learning environment. There are so many things competing for students' attention, we can't afford to have classrooms that are bland and uninspiring. The use of fun, bright and lively colors is an effective way to wake kids up and engage them in their surroundings.

While many students enjoy interiors with a retail or fashion feel, it is important to remember that a school's design must be long-lasting and timeless. If trendy colors are used, don't employ them in terrazzo flooring. Instead, use them on a painted wall, which can be easily repainted in the future.

Color can also be a useful tool for breaking down the scale of larger spaces, which are prevalent in a project-based learning environment. Varying the color of carpet or acoustical tile patterns can help to create a series of smaller learning areas, each with its own unique look and feel. Other strategies include the use of accent walls and graphics, or employing ceiling plane changes.

Rule #3: Blur the Edges

If the emphasis on project-based learning has taught us anything, it is that instruction doesn't start when a student enters the classroom. The school grounds, commons areas and hallways can all be learning tools.

In many cases, this approach manifests itself as a connection between the building's interior and exterior. Many classrooms now have secured doors that lead out to a central courtyard or outdoor learning lab. At some schools, solar panels and vertical axis wind turbines on the exterior act as demonstration elements. Inside, students can monitor their performance on digital displays located throughout the building. In the same way, touch screen panels allow students, parents and visitors to check on the school calendar, events, schedules and workshop options. This casual form of technology is an effective way to provide a large group of users with access to information.

Rule #4: There Are No Rules
Though our approach to educational interiors is changing, some of the tried-and-true rules remain as relevant as ever. Foremost among them is this: Every aspect of the building should support the school's specific educational program.

In this context, there are no hard-and-fast rules for educational interiors, beyond what each district sets for itself. Creating a flexible learning environment can take on many forms — running the gamut from the more traditional to the visionary.

For districts looking to push the envelope, total flexibility can be achieved using many of the techniques listed previously. In this scenario, movable partitions take the place of fixed walls. Students use hand-held devices, and the majority of the learning activities take place in centralized collaboration areas, rather than the traditional classroom.

For schools that are looking for a more traditional approach, or must conform to existing state or regional design standards, providing a mix of traditional and non-traditional spaces can be an effective strategy. Large, open areas serve the needs of project-based learning, while more traditional classrooms offer an enhanced sense of structure. Even when the classroom is comprised of fixed walls, there still does not need to be one designated "teaching wall," as in schools of the past. Mobile tables, chairs, monitors and interactive whiteboards still allow many different types of activities to occur simultaneously.

For more conservative districts, designating a single space as a "pilot program" can provide the chance to test drive a new approach to instruction. In elementary schools, the media center is a good place to start. Outfitting a media center with multiple interactive whiteboards and flat screens supports a variety of instruction and presentation formats, offering a good mix of structure and flexibility.

Rule #5: Dream Big
This is an extremely exciting time to be a teacher or school administrator, and inspiration is everywhere. For example, many of the ideas related to highly flexible learning environments started at the university level. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), an organization supporting higher education and research institutions in the United Kingdom, has published a very useful handbook entitled, "Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Learning Space Design." While the examples they use are focused on colleges and universities, the concepts presented have applications for schools of all types. The book can be downloaded free of charge.

Public libraries and retail stores are also good sources of ideas. Apple and Starbucks have managed to turn their stores into true destinations, largely due to the engaging and flexible nature of their buildings. They illustrate a “hub of innovation.” When it comes to creating places for collaboration, educators, architects and interior designers have much to learn from these types of businesses.

However, the best ideas still come from each school's administrators and teachers. They are the ones with an in-depth understanding of the current and future curriculum needs. To effectively implement flexible learning environments, they must be leaders and visionaries. From their dreams, we can create a new generation of agile, high-tech and engaging schools.

In this, the old adage is true: form truly does follow function. As school districts continue to redefine what a classroom should be, the new rules for educational interiors will continue to be written.

Less Is More

The lack of structure in today's flexible learning environments can often result in a mass of tables and chairs arranged haphazardly in extended learning areas. To combat this, less is more when it comes to furnishings and fixtures. The planning and design process should identify only what the teachers truly need, and then educate them on different possible configurations. Encouraging electronic filing for staff is key to developing this atmosphere. Providing common storage areas for excess tables and chairs is also a good idea.

Keep It Age Appropriate

When planning and designing educational interiors, keep the age of the students in mind. Flexible strategies vary by age group, and are largely based on the students' emotional and cognitive needs.

Elementary School: Elementary school students require more structure, yet still should have access to interactive furniture. Students need opportunities each day to learn by sitting at tables and comfortable chairs, lying on the floor or standing at counter height surfaces. Make sure that learning areas are clearly defined through the use of loose equipment.

Middle School: A key consideration for this age is how to “engage” the student. What will keep the middle schooler focused? Social environments are necessary (i.e., a student lounge or a casual seating area in the media/resource center), as well as quiet, reflective spaces. Provide participation options throughout the building for distance learning with other schools, professionals or communities. This helps to enhance real-world learning. Small areas for breakout groups allow for different styles of learning.

High School: At this level, many more students are working in small groups and independently. Some students may be working towards college credit programs. Plentiful access to laptops, video and sound editing spaces and presentation hubs are a must. Learning studios should be available throughout the building — not just in formal classroom spaces.

Carla Remenschneider is an interior designer with Fanning Howey, a leading national educational facilities planning and design firm.