Student-Centered Interior Design

“I think that we, as a society, are recognizing that there are many different ways of learning and that learning is a lifelong opportunity,” says George Metzger, AIA, senior principal with HMFH Architects, Cambridge, Mass. This recognition is becoming apparent through a number of different avenues.

First, educators are becoming aware that learning occurs everywhere in the educational environment, not just in the classroom.

Second, there are many ways that students learn. For example, some are active learners, some are passive. Some are auditory learners, while some are visual and others are tactile.

Third, educators are noting that learning is interdisciplinary. Integrating subject matter is a valuable method of delivering lessons, as opposed to delivering isolated subject matter.

These understandings are leading more and more to a student-driven, student-focused learning model. “The old model was more about ‘pour it into our brains,’” says James A. Brady, AIA, REFP, executive director, of Austin, Texas-based America’s Schoolhouse Council, a national consortium of educational planners and designers dedicated to excellence in planning, building and maintaining our nation’s schools. “Today’s model is more hands-on, manipulative. There are great examples out there, and I’m seeing more and more all the time — to where the materials and the spaces empower and lift up the students to be successful.”

The student-centered model of education delivery affects both facility design (especially the classroom) and the materials placed in the learning space.

Changing Spaces

Classroom:  The most critical space in terms of education delivery, of course, is the classroom itself. A key consideration is that the space for large-group learning be easily broken into multiple, small-group learning spaces. In this manner, students can be working on different projects that accommodate their different learning styles. For example, one group of students may be building a working volcano, while another group is writing a report on volcanoes and a third is watching an Internet-accessed volcano video.

Generally speaking, there are a lot of codes that have to be met in designing classrooms. But, Metzger says, there are a lot of non-code issues that have to be considered to make sure classrooms are well designed. One is managing and designing intentionally for high-quality lighting and acoustics. “If you can’t see or hear, you won’t learn,” he says.

In fact, HMFH advocates for an abundance of natural daylighting in classrooms. An extension of natural day lighting is bringing the outdoors in. “It’s important to be able to connect to what’s going on in terms of weather and making the classroom a comfortable place to be,” Metzger observes.

Diana Swensson, interior designer with Minneapolis-based ATS&R Architects, agrees, and points out that her firm works diligently to bring natural daylight into school spaces. In renovating Deephaven Elementary School in Minnetonka, Minn., the media center was changed from a space with no windows to the outside to a space with lots of natural light. In addition, the firm brought elements of the school’s courtyard into the media center, including a pergola. “It is whimsical and shows a lot of the natural tree elements related to the outdoors, thus allowing the students to have the hands-on approach to both the outdoors and indoors,” she describes.

“We try to get so much in during the course of the school day that we have limited the opportunity for learning that’s naturally given in other places,” says Brady. “For example, some cafeterias are like feed lots, where students have 20 minutes to gobble down their food. We have to consider that eating is a social time — a time to reflect on and have discussions about the day. I think cafeterias are one of the big challenges we need to address. Can we design it for a number of groupings with a variety of spaces to welcome and encourage social discourse?”

In fact, student-centered cafeteria design is up and coming, says Swensson. In addition to flexible and varied seating arrangements, she notes that wireless access to the Internet in the cafeteria is huge for accessing information.

Library:  HMFH is currently in construction on three Concord, N. H., elementary schools that will be finished in 2012. The schools will not have conventional libraries, says Metzger. Instead, they will boast distributed media centers. “Teachers and students won’t have to march up the hall and down the stairs to find the materials they need,” he explains. The convenience alone promotes student-centered learning.

Brady recalls working on a school library that included project rooms where students could work on their laptops. “It was like a Barnes and Noble,” he says. “There was a juice bar outside the library, run by students, and they could bring their drinks into the media center. There was group seating for conversations, and there was a quiet area.”

With reference materials being readily available online and much group learning occurring, the library is becoming a different space altogether. “It’s a very different access to learning,” says Brady. “The role of that place where reading and research is a fun activity, is not going away. And the librarian is still important in helping students access the information they want. But it is definitely an active hub instead of a quiet storage closet.”

Changing Materials

Student-centered learning spaces should be “designed to give students a sense that they were intentionally planned for their needs, interests and engagement,” says Metzger. That intentionality reaches specifically to the various materials chosen for the space. “The classroom is less and less a container to hold children,” Brady acknowledges. “It’s more and more a place of engagement. So the materials in that space are really important. Variety is important. The materials allow the students freedom to engage in a variety of activities.” And those materials, which include furniture and technology, should be mobile.

When it comes to furniture, there are two thoughts. First, it has to be to scale. Kindergarteners and high school students require desks, tables and chairs that fit their bodies. Also in terms of scale, Brady points out, not every production has to be performed in a 2,000-seat auditorium and that educators should consider different platforms for different functions. In fact, he advocates that single-purposed spaces in this economy do not make sense and architects should think about how a cafeteria can be used for more than just a space to serve lunch.

The second consideration for furniture is that it be flexible. “A lot of schools are used to their big tables with fixed benches in the cafeterias,” says Swensson. “What we’re seeing more of is a variety of furniture, from high-top tables to booths to lounge-type areas.” She specifically notes the renovation of Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, where administrators wanted a space in which students could collaborate, engage with each other and learn outside of the classroom, which was accomplished via a variety of seating areas.

Technology:  The most important thought for technology in a hands-on classroom is that it be seamless. “It’s about allowing students to have access to technology without it being cumbersome but, instead, being easy to integrate with furniture and everything else that’s going in the classroom,” says Swensson. She notes that a student-centered classroom includes wireless connections for laptops, iPods, PDAs and other devices that students bring with them. It also includes Smart Boards that engage students both visually and audibly. Finally, it includes microphones for the teachers, “to allow all students to hear properly and understand what’s going on instead of getting lost in the back seat,” she observes.

Mobile materials:  “We’re seeing that standard storage is no longer bolted to the walls,” says Swensson. “Now storage is on wheels to create separate spaces in combination with the furniture and so that it can be moved from classroom to classroom.

“At New Richmond High School in Wisconsin, we chose nonstandard classroom furniture for flexibility and the ability to accommodate spontaneous learning,” she recalls.

“If we think about our learning styles and start creating spaces that support those styles,” says Brady, “we’ll get there. Not every space needs to have every element necessary for student-centered education, but it should be included somewhere in the school. If we want the best from our students, we have to design a variety of spaces so that they can be their best.” And as designers and educators work together, they undoubtedly will create effective and enjoyable learning spaces that promote student-driven education.