Constructing Knowledge by Design, SEDL research + effective design = great learning environment
This sounds like a great school, doesn't it? Crow Island principalElizabeth Herbert says, "The thoughtfulness that went into designing the buildingis so pervasive. It sends the message to kids that the building was built forthem." The L-shaped classrooms were designed to encourage group work and provideplenty of storage. Each class opens to a courtyard and has large windows ensuringthat students have a window to the outside world. All of the light switches,plumbing fixtures, and door handles are child sized.
The surprise is that Crow Island Elementary School is not a new facility. It is nearly 60 years old. Thebrainchild of superintendent Carleton Washburne, it opened in 1940 in Winnetka,Illinois, north of Chicago. The award-winning school has been described as the"architectural reflection of his educational philosophy."
The importance of thelink between school building and educational program has been recognized foryears, although sometimes ignored. In 1848, Henry Barnard wrote, "...[T]he publicmind...must be aroused to an active sense of the close connection of a goodschool house to a good school...." In the early 1900s Dwight H. Perkins, whosework fused architecture and social reform, designed schools that incorporatedlearning theory into design.
A growing population and demographic shifts present school districts in the SEDLregion with an opportunity to revolutionize school design unparalleled since thebaby boom fueled school construction in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite thefinancial challenges the need for new schools presents, new school designprovides us with the opportunity to improve the educational environment by usingthe school building as a tool for positive change. But how do we ensure that ournew buildings and renovations are designed to positively affect our children'slearning?
This article distills recent information on facilities design to a few importantprinciples and provides insight from SEDL researchers on some of the issuesimpacting facility design.
Facilities should be designed around learning processes and programs
Stephen Marble, program manager for SEDL's Program for the Improvement ofTeaching and Learning, says one of the problems in facility design is that"schools have been designed as management institutions — to manage kids."
However, when schools are designed around the learning process, there is a goodchance the school environment will positively influence the learning process.Marble says that when designing facilities we should think about what studentsprefer. Instead of working in isolation, he says, "they like to be engaged — that'swhy they want to play sports and go to music, art, and lunch."
Fortunately, the design process is changing. School districts have begunincluding teachers on design teams or task forces; some now include students.Districts and state education agencies are acknowledging that facilities mustmeet the demands of educational programs.
The Council on Educational Facility Planners International has been promoting the"design-down" process, which requires a design team to move through a series ofphases to create the framework of learning specifications to guide facilitiesdevelopment for a district. The process focuses on the need to fit design to thelocal situation and ensure that technology and learning settings support thelearning process and curriculum.
Austin Independent School District has taken a similar approach with its use ofeducational specifications to come up with a prototype school design to be usedwhen building eight new elementary schools. Prior to a 1996 bond election, AISDprepared three sets of educational specifications for elementary schools, middleschools, and high schools. The goal was to make certain the specifications wereeducationally driven and supportive of future curriculum design.
Anita Uphaus, administrative supervisor for AISD's bond program, says that in the past the district's educational specifications were construction oriented. "Now," she says, "the specifications have been developed around five components on the theory that they contribute to successful education." These components are curriculum connections, career pathways, technology applications, community linkages, and safety. Uphaus stresses that the educational specifications are "fluid, working documents" to be updated as needs and educational programs evolve.
After the ed specs were completed, the elementary team collaborated witharchitects to develop a prototype blueprint to build the eight new elementaryschools approved in the bond election. Not only does the use of a prototypereduce design cost and project delivery time, but it ensures functional equity atthe new schools — that each new school will meet the educational programrequirements.
AISD's "ed specs" are divided into two sections: program descriptions of all educational programs delivered, including their teaching and learning activities, and facilities descriptions needed to meet the educational programs, including instructional capacity, furniture, equipment, and square footage.
To develop the ed specs, three teams of educators and citizen advisors analyzedcurriculum processes and student performance expectations and visited model sitesthroughout the U.S. The teams worked with consultants to determine spacerequirements for all areas located within permanent school structures.
J.D. Mills Elementary School in southwest Austin was built using AISD's prototype design.
Although using a prototype, AISD avoided the cookie-cutter approach, wheremultiple schools are built using the same design. Because of differences in thecommunities where the schools are to be built and topographical variations ateach site, the district favored the "kit of parts" approach. This approachprovides fixed and flexible components so the school can be customized to thelocation. For example, two new schools built from the prototype will open inAustin this fall: one, built on hilly terrain, is split-level; the other isone-story.
The AISD educational specifications have also been used to conduct an assessmentof functional equity within the school district. Every school in the district hasbeen compared to the specifications to see what additions or renovations may beneeded to make older campuses more equitable. Although the ideal space for eachof the educational programs is described in the specifications, Uphaus says theylooked at program delivery — if a school could deliver the program curriculum, itwas functionally equitable, even if the space used for the program was not quiteup to the new standards. If a school could not meet program goals, it was deemedfunctionally deficient.
Another benefit of the functional equity assessment, according to Uphaus, is thatit has provided the district with "hard" data for the next bond election.
Not all districts have the resources to prepare the extensive educationalspecifications that AISD did.
In Dripping Springs, a small community southwest of Austin, planning for the newintermediate school began with a task force of educators, students, parents, andother community members. The task force looked at schools throughout the Austinarea and began drafting a list of desired characteristics for the new school.Administration and faculty members made certain the facility met the needs of thecurriculum, although it was done on a much more informal basis than in AISD.Dripping Springs Intermediate School principal Dolores Covington faced thechallenge of getting task force consensus while also balancing the tensionbetween cost effectiveness and designing a quality structure with aestheticappeal.
Facilities should be flexible
Schools designed for flexibility are more able to accommodate a variety oflearning and teaching styles as well as changes in the education program. In arecent article, Anne Taylor, director of the Institute of Environmental Educationat the University of New Mexico, explains, "No one wants to repeat the mistakesof the 1970s and '80s when even newly constructed schools needed major overhaulsto accommodate new learning techniques and technologies."
Additionally, flexibility is critical when making schools, school grounds, andequipment accessible to the people who use them. "A broader concept thanaccessibility is universal design," says Dr. John Westbrook, director of theNational Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research (NCDDR) and one ofSEDL's experts on issues of access for people of all abilities. According toWestbrook and the NCDDR, universal design focuses on designing to meet the needsof as many people as possible, of all ages and abilities. And one of theprinciples of universal design is flexibility of use.
"For the purpose of school facilities design," Westbrook points out, "undertakinguniversal design means thinking about the needs of others and incorporating theminto the design, rather than making changes to the facilities as special needsare identified."
Little Elm HighSchool, in Little Elm, Texas, north of Dallas, consisted of five buildings before renovation. Now the five have been converted into one large building.
Taking this approach can result in design solutions that create no additionalcost and no noticeable changes in appearance. It requires knowledge of thepopulation in the school community, ongoing planning, and thoughtful choices ofconventional products, equipment, or hardware. And committing to universal designis ongoing. Westbrook says that the very fact that one is designing spaces to beusable by all people means that what is considered "universal" will change.
How might school administrators deal with universal design and related issues?Westbrook suggests two steps:
"Work with colleagues to develop a policy statement related to accessibility anduniversal design. And seek and use objective sources of information that draw ona knowledge base of expertise and research. Many administrators look to schoolarchitects and district lawyers to answer questions about accessibility anduniversal design, and that's probably not enough.
"Because universal design is changing, it's much better to look toward anobjective, expert source of information that tracks emerging issues and solutions
In fast-growing districts, planning for expansion is a necessity. Core areas of aschool, such as the gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium, media center, andcorridors, are built to handle a maximum number of students, even though the restof the school may be designed for fewer students. When the time comes to add onto the school, the infrastructure is in place — additions won't have to be made tothe core areas. When Dripping Springs Intermediate School opens in the fall of1999, it will accommodate 750 students, with an initial enrollment of around 500.The core areas, however, will be able to handle 1,000 students. To a district
Facilities should elicit a spirit of place and sense of community
Dena Stoner, former president of the National Educational Knowledge IndustryAssociation, observes that a school's pattern language embodies the value acommunity places on learning. Thus, the pattern language conveyed by some schoolsfosters learning and encourages students to feel good about themselves.
Scott Milder, communications manager for SHW Group, Inc., a Dallas-basedarchitectural firm that has been designing schools for 50 years, says simply,"The more appealing a school is, the more pride students take."
Dripping Springs Intermediate School principal Covington reports her task forceworked to avoid the institutional look of many school buildings. The new schoolincorporates some arches and glass blocks as well as a curved glass-block windowin the library to give a feeling of openness. "Aesthetics are important,"observes Covington. "We don't want to be extravagant, but inviting. We think thattranslates well to children."
Colorful and airy corridors are inviting to students at John B. Connolly High School in Pflugerville, Texas.
Stoner also sees successful schools as a bond for our civic infrastructure. Shesays, "They strengthen a community's sense of identity, coherence, and consensus.Inviting spaces within the school facility nurture dialogue about children andthe future of the community." Involving the community in activities at the schooland incorporating community members of all ages and abilities in the planningprocess for new schools are ways to foster this dialogue.
Uphaus notes that having community representatives on AISD's three task forceswas positive, as "they had the pulse of the community." She thinks having the"outside" input was beneficial because more diverse ideas and opinions wererepresented. She reports another benefit, too: the community representatives wereoften the district's advocates during the bond election.
Award-winning Oñate High School represents Las Cruces Public Schools' first community-wide planning effort.
As districts have sought to get the community more involved in schools, securityconcerns have risen. Milder says that 20 years ago, quite a few schools hadseparate buildings with outdoor walkways, but, now the trend is toward one largebuilding where access can be monitored more carefully. SHW Group has handledseveral renovations that incorporate the separate buildings of past decades intoone large building. Pathways are turned into corridors in the remodeled version.Milder observes that another trend of the past decade is to provide exteriorentries to core areas such as the library/media center, gymnasium, and cafeteria.This way, the public can use the large meeting spaces in the building, but therest of the school can be locked to limit access.
Milder also reports one of the top goals among recent design committees has beento ensure that the school design fits in well with surrounding architecture andenvironment. One of SHW's designs, Oñate High School in Las Cruces, NM, was adeparture from the city's other two high schools in that it was designed to fitinto the desert setting on Las Cruces' East Mesa, near the Organ Mountains. Ithas a much more southwestern flavor than the brick one-story high schools builtin the 1960s, and Oñate represents the district's first facility that involvedcommunity-wide planning.
Schools should direct behavior
Bradley explains that light, space, volume, order, material and texture cancollectively imply a natural order and intuitively direct students' behavior,such as causing them to lower their voices or walk softly.
An example of directed behavior is the restroom design chosen for DrippingSprings Intermediate School. "Students often think once they are behind closeddoors they can do whatever they want," says Covington. To help avoid behaviorproblems, the school plans call for restrooms designed as they often are atairports — there are no doors to the entrance; instead students go into the roomaround a walled entry, rather than through a door.
A feeling of openness
at McCamey Middle School encourages positive student interaction. McCamey is part of Lewisville ISD, north of Dallas in Denton County.
Another, more subtle, example of directed behavior is the inclusion of universaldesign. Incorporating universal design can send a powerful message to students,one that promotes caring behavior and acceptance of others of different abilities.
Schools can encourage hands-on and group learning by the way classrooms areorganized and the kinds of furniture used. SEDL's Stephen Marble points out thatmany classrooms are set up with the teacher's desk in front of the class so he orshe can observe the students' actions simultaneously. He says that such a setupimplies a power relationship, when, in reality, classrooms should be learning communities.
One teacher with whom Marble has worked started the first day of school each yearby having his students carry everything — every book, desk, and shelf — out of theroom. Then they brought it all back in, creating an environment they wanted withinput from the teacher. "Kids have good ideas about the way the environmentshould work. Let them tell you where the teacher's space should be; where theirspace should be," he suggests.
Marble adds, "What is important is the way you are creative in the space — acreative teacher finds ways to evaporate the walls by bringing the world to theclassroom."
Likewise, how technology is incorporated into the design of the school caninfluence the way it is used by students. For example, SEDL's TechnologyAssistance Program is working with Bernice Hart Elementary in northeast Austin.At Hart there will be at least two computers in each class when school opens thisfall, but the classrooms can accommodate up to five workstations. There won't bea computer laboratory because principal Claudia Tousek believes the labsdiscourage teachers from using computers in the classroom. Instead, TAP istraining teachers to work in a student-centered way to integrate technology intoan existing curriculum.
While many are idealistic about the future of school facilities design, othersfeel school design isn't likely to change substantially because there are oftenbarriers to ideal design.
Parents, community members, educators, and children themselves have preconceivednotions about what a school should look like. After all, attending school in atraditional building is a universal American experience.
There are cost concerns, too, with the median cost of schools in the SEDL regionranging from $4,900,000 for elementary schools to $7,625,000 for high schools.Administrators are faced with equity issues among schools, and it is ofteneasiest to handle such concerns by building similar schools. And because of voteredginess about bond issues, administrators and school boards often don't want afacility to "look expensive," even if it is a cost-effective design; instead,they opt for more traditional buildings.
Although these barriers are likely to persist for some time, by considering theprinciples discussed here and the perspectives of SEDL researchers, members ofschool communities can raise their expectations of facilities design a notch ortwo. And perhaps it is time to establish a new precedent in school design — onethat incorporates exemplary designs from the past with learning research, carefulplanning, community input, and creative new designs to build schools thatencourage the construction of knowledge, are pleasing to students and teachers,and are community assets. The buildings now under construction will be used forthe next 50 years or more. Consider Crow Island School — good design and soundconstruction will serve us well.
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