Roadblocks to a Quality Education

To paraphrase the 1980s Oldsmobile commercial, Krista Betit is not your father’s teacher. Krista teaches English and art at a public high school south of Boston. She is excited and thoughtful about how students learn. “We need to help our students to be involved citizens, original thinkers, collaborative and to take initiative. This doesn’t happen simply sitting and listening in a classroom all day. Students need to be fully engaged with their learning and with the texts we read. They need to interact with one another on multiple levels to understand a text or to solve problems.”        

Krista challenges her students to be creative and to take more responsibility for their own learning. The students are meeting her challenges but they do it in many different ways. “On any given day some of my students might be discussing a book, while others are practicing for a performance of a play they wrote, creating a video or working on large scale art projects.” Her classroom is not particularly conducive to any of these and the spaces that are more conducive for these activities are spread throughout the building. She is frequently dispersing her students to spaces better suited for their activities.

Traditional schools were not designed for Krista and her students. They were designed when the primary mode of teaching was distributive; teachers provided information and students were responsible for memorizing and repeating the information. All classrooms were identical marching down each side of identical corridors. Colors were dull or off white because brighter colors were thought to be distracting. Everyone was taught in the same manner. Passive learning was rewarded, conformity was expected and the building’s appearance and layout reinforced that message.

The newly constructed Hanover (Mass.) High School is designed to address some of the barriers that Krista finds vexing in her building. The academic areas of the 800-student school are organized in U-shaped clusters of six classrooms that share two small-group rooms and a central breakout space. This flexible area, which includes soft seating, whiteboards and Wi-Fi, is visible from all surrounding classrooms, allowing independent and collaborative, small group work while teachers remain in the classroom with the other students.

There is nothing standard in Jenna Gampel’s second grade classroom at a charter school in Brighton, Mass. The school uses an expeditionary learning model where students are constantly involved in hands-on activities intended to encourage deep exploration of their theme-based studies, an approach that requires students to interact with lots of materials. Students in Jenna’s class are seated around and in between skill centers and the expeditionary activity area. In addition to regular classroom chairs and trapezoidal tables, students can use soft seating or sit directly on the floor around a low table. Some students need to work alone, so their seats are off to the side of the classroom and others work in small groups. Each student understands the expectations and works in his or her own way, carefully tracking progress toward the goals of the day, week and month. Jenna and her fellow teachers at the school work hard to understand the different learning styles of each student and to manage the classroom so that each child can follow his or her own individual learning path with the greatest independence possible.

Much like Krista, the high school teacher, Jenna talks of rearranging furniture and equipment daily to accommodate the different groupings and types of activities the students need. Like the high school students, the second graders also make videos as well as write books and songs and create art projects. Jenna’s classroom is too small and not designed to easily accommodate the range of activities that Jenna’s students participate in and her school building has few other options for supporting those activities.

Student work is pinned to clothes lines strung across the room because there is little room for display in the classroom or throughout the school. The small storage area is carefully managed to allow access to supplies and equipment that are needed each day. Access to a sink is limited. Each of these seemingly small issues can end up, at the very least, complicating the teacher’s day and, more significantly, reducing the overall potential of the most creative teacher’s effectiveness.

As architects, we try hard to design schools that support teaching and learning and yet, at times, our efforts unwittingly create additional roadblocks. For instance, if architects do not use properly insulated windows to reduce heat build-up and sun shades to minimize glare, much-touted natural light in the classroom can actually become a roadblock to learning because when uncontrolled, sunlight causes glare that can reduce a child’s ability to read and heat build-up that leads to discomfort directly associated with diminished learning.

In addition, poorly designed acoustical controls, both within a classroom and between classrooms, diminishes what a child hears, which has a direct impact on effective learning. Too much noise has also been proven to cause stress, which again, can reduce a child’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to teach.

Lighting and acoustics are clearly two roadblocks that occur within many of our classrooms today but there are other, even more subtle constraints in the physical environment that can diminish a child’s learning potential. As neurological research has taught us more about how the brain learns and retains information, teaching pedagogy is changing and the design of school buildings is catching up.

A recently completed school in Concord, N.H., presents a new model for minimizing roadblocks and supporting personalized learning. The Christa McAuliffe School, which opened its doors in August in 2012, is clearly a different type of learning place. Bold colors, patterns and forms greet visitors at the door, made more brilliant by the abundant natural light that flows evenly throughout the building. The sensory-rich environment engages students and teachers alike. Mosaic designs delight the students and special nooks provide perfect locations for independent learning activities.

But most striking in the building is the learning corridor that the classrooms encircle. The learning corridor is not simply an empty doughnut hole surrounded by traditional classrooms. This vibrant, active zone contains a mini performance space, a cozy storybook room, a media integration center, a book-filled literacy center, an open teacher’s workroom and multiple project areas.

The project areas serve many purposes. With seating and tables for a full class, students can spread out and work on large-scale projects, specific skill centers can be set up for use by multiple classes or a specialist can work one-on-one with individual students. Project areas have a sink, storage, plenty of counter space and easily moveable furniture. Frequently small groups of students can be observed working together on a special activity while the remainder of their class is engaged within the classroom. Windows from each class look into the learning corridor so that adult supervision is always apparent, and yet the students using the learning corridor independently feel trusted and empowered.

Last fall, when the fourth graders were building their Native American projects in the learning corridor the space was abuzz with activity. Students spread out on tables, counters and even the floor. Meanwhile, students in the surrounding classrooms were undisturbed by the activity beyond their walls. Careful attention to acoustics means that little noise travels from one space to another and, within each space, sound-absorptive materials help keep classroom discussion clear and audible.

In addition to the options that the learning corridor presents for different types of activities, each pair of classrooms shares a small group learning room. Large enough for six, and visible from the classroom, this space is used constantly for students catching up on work, for specialists working with small groups and for teachers planning together. Christine Rath, superintendent of schools, indicates that, “There is a time for whole class instruction, but much more of our curriculum is designed to be more personalized.” The learning corridor and the small group instruction areas support that personalization.

There is extensive display space for artwork throughout the school. The displays not only allow students to show off their work, they provide the opportunity for younger children to see and understand what is expected as they grow older. As Diane Johnston, a second grade teacher in the school says, “Anytime you can get kindergartners looking at second graders work, it gets them thinking, ‘Oh, that is achievable, I can do that.’”

Providing space for prominent display is a win-win for allof the students.

Teachers and students at the McAuliffe School are demonstrating daily what happens when roadblocks are removed. The variety of spaces allows teachers to support their students’ unique learning paths. It is easy to find just the right place for media interaction, a collaborative project or for an individual
to quietly study. Students report feeling “grown-up” as they work independently outside the classroom. Roadblocks are coming down and effective, highly personalized teaching and learning
is taking place.  

Laura Wernick, senior principal at HMFH Architects, Inc. is active in the national dialogue on architecture and learning. She is frequently invited to speak at professional and educationally related venues and most recently was the curator for the exhibit, “Not old school; Architecture in Support of Learning,” at BSA Space. She can be reached at lwernick@hmfh.com.

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