Facility Planning

Child-Centered Learning

In architectural design, we follow the foundational concept that form follows function, believing that instructional environments are most successful when approached methodically, as opposed to delivering a one-size-fits-all learning space. As customizable learning experiences come to prominence, more focus than ever is being put on child-centered learning philosophies, in which multiple pedagogies and diverse learning needs are used to inspire educational design.

However, focusing solely on the child-learner often misses a key opportunity: the professional development of educators. As educational facilities continue to evolve, expanding the planning and design conversation to include educator development and space needs will impart far greater success in the classroom, for educators and students alike.

Designing flexible, forward-thinking environments

Choice and flexibility in the learning environment, combined with educational relevance in subject matter, are hallmarks of the child-centered learning philosophy. In this manner, students are given opportunities to explore interests, develop soft skills and collaborate with peers, using the educator as a facilitator.

To support this style of learning, educational environments are moving away from fixed furniture and lecture-style instruction and instead are introducing movable tables and wall systems, horizontal and vertical writing surfaces, instructional technology and varied seating styles. These elements offer opportunities to tailor the student learning experience.

Evolving child-centered learning

While today’s students have more choice than ever, without the right facilitator, that choice can be overwhelming. To better serve students, school districts should also focus on professional learning opportunities for educators, expanding the child-center learning philosophy into “learner-centered learning.”

Enhanced educator development is a topic of conversation in school districts of all sizes. While most school districts have embraced personalized learning experiences and forward-thinking learning environments, only a small percentage are also embracing personalized professional development and forward-thinking learning and working environments for educators.

This starts with simple mind shifts, for example, encouraging school communities to put as much thought into the design of educator workstations as they do for classrooms. Or, looking beyond educationally focused catalogs and exploring possible solutions in other building types. By creating a look that encourages a professional, fun and creative environment, there is the potential to inspire outside-the-box thinking.

In one Texas school district, this concept is coming to life in two ways: educator collaboration and design labs on campus and professional development space at a new central administration building that mimics the innovative instructional environments that will soon exist throughout the district.

The campus spaces provide professional and educator-focused environments that allow for student data analysis, daily collaboration and dynamic space scheduling. The district labs offer more than traditional large-group professional development space— they provide a think-tank environment where curriculum can be designed, tested and perfected by educators before being introduced into the schools where classroom management becomes the focus. This commitment to professional development creates a strong community of empowered professionals served by the district so they can collectively serve the students.

Another educational client is taking professional development beyond the 20th century model of solely content-based opportunities and is creating personalized learning plans (PLPs) for students, as well as professional PLPs for educators.

Investing in our educators

Students are not the only learners in an educational facility, and educators also deserve to experience learning environments that are focused on their success as professionals. School districts are learning institutions, but often times, they are also one of, or are, the largest employer(s) in a community. Districts that are having intentional conversations about the professional learning of their educators are successfully embracing the fact that they need to be equally committed to their adult learners as they are to their child learners.

As a community of professionals committed to the holistic growth of our students, we have embraced child-centered learning. Purposeful design of space for students has seen its tipping point and is taking the world by storm. Now is the time to couple that with the purposeful design of space for educators. Only then will the learning experience of students be even more successful through the built environment as well as successful and empowered educators.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Kerri Ranney, AIA, Esq., REFP, is the director of Learning & Strategic Development at Huckabee, an educational architectural and engineering firm. She works with clients to shape the learning environment using educational delivery as a catalyst for innovation.

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