Design for Learning

“The design of classrooms determines what and how children learn. If you build a quiet corner, children read.” – Virginia Connor, Head of School. St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School.

Educators are constantly thinking about what’s next for their students, their school and their community. When teachers set up their classrooms each summer, they expertly incorporate elements to engage students in the lessons of the coming year. Teachers dedicate their time and resources to preparing the space of the classroom because they recognize the importance of the student’s first impression of this space in setting the tone for learning. In planning for new facilities, we’ve often heard from educators that the building is the first teacher. We share this belief and are excited to share the ways in which we’ve implemented creative and well-considered design to positively impact learning. Our schools can and should be places that encourage and inspire both teachers and students to excel.

The most effective approaches to education embrace many methodologies and take many forms. Each student learns differently, each class has a different dynamic and each school has different challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the perfect school building, nor one perfect classroom design. What we share here are considerations to make your school building work for you. This includes using scale, color, daylighting and spatial concepts geared specifically towards student to design age-appropriate spaces that are flexible and easily adaptable to multiple purposes.

The physical elements of the school building including scale, color and daylight are only a part of the picture, though. A successful design relies on engaging the people within the school community in a structured process. An early focus on smart planning and careful programming underscores the mission of the school and leads to innovative and sometimes unexpected results that can greatly enhance the project. The best design is not only functional, but embodies and reflects the identity of the school itself. Architecture should express the pedagogy, culture and values of the institution.

Age-appropriate design

Schools should provide students with dynamic, child-centric learning environments. School design demands sensitivity to the stages of human development and the scale appropriate for users. This means tailoring the height of counters, benches and shelving to the size of the students and selecting fixtures and fittings adapted to their bodies and motor skill levels. Reading nooks and small spaces scaled to small bodies draw students into quiet and concentrated study. Plumbing is fascinating to our youngest learners and should be celebrated through design including practical elements like soap dispensers that little hands can operate. For younger learners, bright punches of color are effective way-finding tools, organizing activity within a classroom or corridor. Older students benefit from more complex palettes with colors and textures that encourage environmental awareness. A focus on the specific needs of child users when designing learning spaces ultimately supports and enriches the academic experience.

Children need the flexibility to be out of their seats, moving around and occupying the floor. Resilient, easy-to-clean flooring comes in natural materials and a variety of colors and makes an ideal surface for students to spread out and work on a group art project or experiment. Carpets and rugs delineate inviting areas for reading, meeting and play and should be soft to the touch. Stepped seating serves as a natural gathering spot for children of any age. As the traditional teaching surface, walls are a primary focus in classroom design incorporating a wide variety of functions. Each wall must be carefully planned to allow students to easily see and reach materials while minimizing distracting visual clutter. Although out of reach, the ceiling is equally important. The design of the ceiling will largely determine the quality of the lighting and acoustics in the classroom and every child should be able to clearly see hir or her work and easily hear the teacher. Every surface in the classroom should support learning.    

Building community

Successful schools rely on strong communities to support their ideals and foster a sense of belonging among their members. For each school, we choreograph community interaction and create spaces that bring students, faculty and staff together in structured and casual circumstances. Entries, outdoor courtyards, strategically distributed common areas and generous circulation paths can be designed to nurture a sense of welcoming, encourage interaction and build community.

Experiential learning

Successfully designed schools celebrate the act of learning and the intellectual exchanges that occur between students and faculty. Schools should be open, collaborative and nurturing environments where students feel comfortable sharing ideas; they should be adaptable for changing academic needs. Articulated classrooms give teachers space for group instruction and students room to work independently while benefiting from proximity to their peers. This provides a variety of spaces to support different types of learning including easy-to-clean areas with hard surfaces for material experiments, tables for teamwork and quiet areas with soft surfaces, such as carpeted floors or cushioned benches for focused study. Varied spaces both within the classroom and within the building also allow different subject matters to be featured in immersive environments. Studying art in a space that feels like a studio or science in a space that feels like a lab lends seriousness to a child’s study and elevates it beyond the ordinary.

Flexible environments

Flexible learning environments support varied and changing pedagogies and are particularly essential on campuses where space is at a premium. School entries, gymnasiums and libraries can serve as assembly and casual meeting spaces. In schools where the gym also functions as an auditorium, finishes should both endure an errant basketball and provide a fitting backdrop and acoustics for a holiday concert. When furnishing a classroom, mobile or flip-top worktables offer teachers the flexibility to configure their classrooms around a specific lesson. This approach to planning allows schools to maximize their square footage and accommodate a multitude of activities and teaching styles. When maximizing spaces, it is also important to consider the daily schedule, including setup and preparation times for a given room, and to plan for adequate storage for each use.

Integrated technology

The way schools use technology to teach and communicate is unique to each institution. Technology is no longer relegated to a “computer lab” in an age when digital natives carry mobile devices with multiple communication formats and the ability to search the web. Anticipating a school’s use of technology is an integral part of the design process. Whether overtly displayed or seamlessly integrated into the background, technology supports and enriches the student learning experience.


Ensuring the safety of the school community involves a broad range of considerations including access control, ease of supervision and efficient evacuation routes. School architecture must give students the sense of security that enables them to focus on learning. Whether we are designing a single building or a full campus, creating a secure entry point to a school is imperative. Developing security solutions at the beginning of the design process is essential to avoiding “bunker” architecture when an open, welcoming environment is desired. New building materials and sophisticated security technology enable seamless integration of these critical elements into the architecture of the school.


Managing limited resources and strategically employing sustainable and easily maintainable materials and systems is essential for schools anywhere in the world. Sustainability is a value that influences the behaviors of the entire school community. In addition to designing low-impact, energy-efficient schools, we interface with science teachers to develop sustainable agendas that dovetail with their work in the classroom. Sustainable schools improve student health, boost learning and provide an ethical paradigm for shaping the built environment. The link between the quality of the indoor environment and the ability for students to learn cannot be overstated. A growing body of research reinforces what we know intuitively — that ample daylight and fresh air are essential to allowing students to perform their best.

Each design and construction project is an opportunity to turn current obstacles into future possibilities. Planning offers a chance to step back and evaluate your school’s needs. Design follows as your team develops specific solutions to meet your program, budget and schedule. We hope that some of these design strategies help inspire and inform your next building project. 

Sara Grant is an associate at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects, a New York-based firm specializing in educational projects. Sara can be reached at [email protected].