A Roadmap for Reinventing Learning

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This connection between people and place is long recognized but often debated, especially in the field of education. Does the design of school facilities impact learning? If so, in what way? And as we seek to reinvent America’s educational system to meet the needs of a modern world, how does building design play a part?

reinventing learning 

PHOTO BY WILLIAM MANNING PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY OF FANNING HOWEY

For the past 12 months, the students and teachers of Middletown City Schools in Middletown, Ohio, have been living the answers to these questions. In August 2018, Middletown opened a grades 7-12 campus made up of a modernized high school and a new middle school. At the same time, the district embarked on the Middie Modernization Movement, an ambitious instructional campaign designed to apply new and modern approaches to teaching and learning.

This combination of new facilities and a new approach to education has yielded six powerful insights for any community wishing to reinvent learning through school design.

DESIGN ACADEMICS FIRST

If reinventing learning is your goal, you must begin by thinking about instruction, not construction.

Visitors who haven’t been to Middletown High School in the past several years would hardly recognize the building. A large academic corridor is now an open STEM atrium with flexible seating and nearby STEAM labs. Glass walls and large windows help natural light fill formerly dimly-lit spaces. Students who used to stay in one place now move from room to room, engaged in project-based learning.

This new take on education is the result of a careful planning process that included visioning sessions with Middletown administrators, faculty and the design team. The collaborative effort identified the types of experiences students would need to succeed in the jobs of the future. This input drove the design of the renovations and new construction.

Visioning is a highly-effective way to put education first during the design process, but it takes many forms. Some districts go through year-long efforts involving dozens of meetings and hundreds of stakeholders. Others opt for a less time-intensive process. Building tours are often a good way to quickly stretch your thinking and gain new insights.

When schools think about planning and visioning, they often think in terms of large projects and new campuses. But any project that seeks to reinvent learning must put academics first.

After completing its modernized high school and new middle school, Middletown City Schools found itself with $10 million in bond money left over. The district decided that the money would go toward the construction of an elementary school addition. But because school leaders wanted to implement a different type of academic program, they began by designing the academic offerings first.

Over the course of several weeks, the district’s curriculum leaders and teachers mapped out the educational programs and student experiences needed in the addition. Design trailed this process by two months, allowing architects, interior designers, and engineers to fully integrate the curricular vision. As a result of this process, Middletown’s Board of Education and community members clearly understand the intent behind the project, and this understanding has resulted in a greater level of support within the community.

THINK RELATIONAL AND TRANSITIONAL

One of the most powerful ways to reinvent learning at the middle school level is to create environments that fully support a team-teaching concept. A year into using their new middle school, Middletown teachers and students are reporting a sea change in their educational delivery and ability to build relationships. The middle school design creates six small learning communities, each with access to a large extended learning area. The team situation has revitalized the middle school program, and educators are continually finding new ways to take advantage of the flexible layouts.

reinventing learning 

PHOTO BY WILLIAM MANNING PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY OF FANNING HOWEY

Community Connections. A 200-seat community room in Middletown High School is designed for local events, including the mayor’s annual state-of-the-city address.

For example, the extended learning areas have proved to be a natural home for the Middie Maker program, a hands-on learning experience that lets students tinker, explore and create. The neighborhood arrangement keeps the Maker program within each students’ learning community, without the need to travel to a separate part of campus.

However, when designing for a relational experience in a middle school environment, make sure to anticipate how students will transition to a very different school facility. The old Middletown High School and Middletown Middle School were similar in their spatial arrangements, but the new buildings are very different. The modernized high school is open and free-flowing. The middle school consists of six small communities. Middletown educators are currently working on ways to help incoming ninth-grade students make the transition to a different type of space. The need to anticipate these transitions is a valuable insight for any school district.

LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND TEACHERS

The results of reinventing learning ends with students and teachers, but the process of planning and design doesn’t always begin with them. More can, and should, be done to involve both students and teachers during the design of new or renovated buildings.

Ask students and teachers what their desires are, and they will tell you. So, don’t be afraid to seek their input in multiple ways. Invite students and teachers to visioning sessions. Ask them to share what is currently getting in the way of teaching and learning. Involve them in presentations and design decisions. For students, small design projects give them ownership of the process and let them influence portions of the final building.

During the planning and design of Middletown’s school buildings, the district utilized the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee, which includes middle and high school students as well as other stakeholder representatives. Their input is a big reason for the success of Middletown’s transition toward modern ways of teaching and learning.

reinventing learning 

PHOTO BY WILLIAM MANNING PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY OF FANNING HOWEY

Academics First. An educational emphasis on collaboration and displaying student work resulted in the design of a large, flexible STEM atrium.

MAKE CULTURE KING

When measuring the impact of school buildings, many educators and architects point toward the reduction of disciplinary measures as a key metric. Middletown has experienced the same result, but that is not the most dramatic shift in student behavior. School culture is now king at Middletown.

The design of the buildings placed a strong emphasis on what the Middletown community calls Middie Pride. School colors and branding are prominent throughout common areas and gathering spaces. In fact, the color palette uses dramatic and liberal amounts of Middie purple, rather than the neutral tones found in many modern school facilities. Graphics on walls and stairs prominently display the school logo, and a large spirit shop has pride of place at the entry to the large arena.

However, creating a vibrant school culture requires more than graphics and branding. The design of both the high school and the middle school puts learning on display, allowing students to take pride in the innovative activities happening on campus. Large windows and carefully-curated views provide line of sight into the STEM atrium from the high school’s first and second floors. Near the performing arts entrance, punched windows frame the activities occurring in one of the many STEAM classrooms. The design celebrates innovative learning in a way that builds pride and enhances culture.

In the last year, there has been a dramatic increase in pride among the Middletown student body. Students report that they feel valued and safe in the new buildings. The community has a greater sense of pride as well. The role of design in achieving these results is one of the most important insights offered by Middletown’s facilities.

CREATE COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS

The importance of creating community connections is another lesson learned from Middletown’s projects. The design of Middletown High School includes a 200-seat community room with large-screen presentation capabilities. The community room is a safe and positive way for residents to come to the campus and experience the Middie Modernization Movement. It also serves as a valuable local resource.

For the past two years, Middletown’s mayor has hosted his annual address in the high school’s community room. During Middle XL, the district’s annual symposium of excellence, influential business and civic leaders met in the community room to discuss issues related to education.

Creating community connections through building design requires planning. Look for ways school facilities can address unmet needs in the area. For example, in addition to the community room, Middletown High School includes a school-based health center to provide much needed wellness resources — dental, vision, medical and behavioral — to residents, staff and all students. Proper zoning of the building allows community members to use the school as a resource while still maintaining the appropriate levels of safety and security.

reinventing learning 

PHOTO BY WILLIAM MANNING PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY OF FANNING HOWEY

Middie Makers. Extended learning areas with flexible furniture provide a natural home for the school district’s hands-on Middie Maker program.

REWARD RISK TAKING

Encouraging the adoption of new teaching methods is a big part of any reinvented learning environment. Once we change the space, how do we change the behavior of the teachers and students themselves? Middletown has found success by keeping things simple.

After the modernized high school and new middle school came online, district leaders didn’t institute formal processes or conduct building-specific training. There were no guest speakers or professional development days devoted to new ways to use the buildings. Instead, Middletown focused on reinventing learning by encouraging and rewarding risk taking.

The process is simple. Teachers are encouraged and supported to take risks, whether that is once a year or once a week. The district’s curriculum and administrative team is available as a resource and as a safety net for teachers transitioning to new educational methods. By keeping things simple, Middletown is embracing change and giving teachers one clear message: Go for it.

Heading into its third year, the Middie Modernization Movement is succeeding beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Students love the ability to extend their learning experience beyond the classroom. Teachers are leveraging new and renovated spaces for all types of innovative activities. Even the community is more engaged and involved.

The lessons learned from Middletown are ones that any school district can apply. You can reinvent learning, no matter your location or your funding level. Design your buildings from the curriculum up, and new possibilities will unfold.

REINVENTING THROUGH RENOVATION

Looking to reinvent learning in your current building? Here are three spaces ripe for change.

  • Media Centers: If your media center predates the iPhone, consider a renovation project. Reduce your hard copy stacks and increase your space for collaboration and displaying student work.
  • Computer Labs: With the rise of hand-held devices, many computer labs are losing their relevance. Think about converting your lab to become a makerspace or other project-based learning venue. The small size of these spaces makes renovation costs more palatable for many districts.
  • Cafeteria: If your cafeteria is used for just three, 30-minute lunch shifts, think about integrating extended learning opportunities. With a little flexible furniture and a few digital displays, one of the largest areas in your school can become reinvented as a modern learning environment.