Planning for Flexible Schools

One of the most daunting challenges confronting an educational facilities planner is the question of how to plan spaces that support current programs while leaving the potential to support programs that may not even be developed yet. The intended life of a well-constructed school building is at least 40 to 50 years. People who were planning schools in the early 1960s certainly weren’t pondering the types of technology or issues of sustainable design that are integral to schools in our current decade.

After many years of debate, concepts of personalized learning, blended learning models, community/school connections and the seamless availability and use of technology are finally becoming a mainstream part of planning and designing schools. Educators have been looking at alternative learning models for years, and some adventuresome souls have actually implemented the ideas that research has predicted will work. Facility planners and architects have also been discussing and implementing, to some extent and in some places, buildings that support those models. The awful specter of “open classrooms” is a frequently brought up reminder of what can happen when the building gets too far ahead of educational practice, and the fear of repeating that unfortunate history has inhibited progress, since none of us want to make multimillion dollar mistakes. However, educational transformation now has enough clarity and articulation to guide the planning and design process away from the industrial model of space configuration with rows of rooms lined up along corridors that held rows of desks lined up along aisles.

In a video developed by GOOD Magazine, Professor Sugata Mitra proposes that students need three things to be successful in the future: good reading comprehension, effective information search and retrieval skills, and the ability to distinguish what inputs to believe. Employers are looking for workers who can respond effectively to frequent change, communicate well, lead appropriately, collaborate with their peers, be proactive and use new information to solve problems. Our job is to figure out how educational spaces can support the creation of those skills and knowledge.

Schools have traditionally been organized around group instruction in classrooms with little time and space for individual learning. Individual learners need time and space to master content. Future schools will need to include space for individuals to focus on their own learning, probably including the use of technology, and that doesn’t require a desktop computer in a lab or a carrel in a library. It could be a student sitting in a soft chair with ear buds and a tablet device.

In a blog posting, Mary Beth Hertz, a teacher in Philadelphia, Pa., discusses the usefulness of “design thinking” in the curriculum. Wikipedia defines design thinking as “… the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.” In her blog post Ms. Hertz discusses “Makerspaces:” “…space for people of all ages to build prototypes, explore questions, fail and retry, bounce ideas off one another and build something together.” It doesn’t take much of a leap for us to begin to envision a “makerspace” that can support the types of problem solving that any active curriculum might require. A few characteristics might be: areas with tables and chairs for group discussion and collaboration, flexible furnishings for rapid and easy reconfiguration, lots of data and electrical access, nearby plumbing for cleanup from messy activities, areas for quiet contemplation and research, balanced transparency and enclosure, varied light levels and good acoustics with some “white noise” to help with focus. Essentially, it sounds like an exciting, flexible space that any of us would find to be interesting and useful.

Students and teachers will also need spaces for large groups to gather to perform and celebrate. Whether the activity involves sports, drama or music, students need opportunities to collaborate in larger groups as they develop physical skills and learn to work as teams of individuals who come together for a purpose.

Simply put: Flexibility involves planning and designing small, medium, large and extra-large spaces with useful connections and appropriate separations, robust infrastructure and movable furnishings that will support both current and future generations of learners. 

Sue Robertson has worked with school districts throughout North America to develop district-wide master plans and educational specifications for over 20 years as both a consultant and a district employee. Sue is currently general manager, facility planning and responsible for managing the planning for a recently passed $1.89 billion bond program.

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