- By Laurence Spang
- October 1st, 2016
Many of us, including myself, have fond memories of
our favorite teachers, assignments
and classrooms. However, many of us also have
memories of tedious classroom environments,
waiting for the bell to ring and moving to the
next identical classroom. Today, school planning
and design needs to support the different ways
students learn while incorporating advances in technology, sustainability
and physical comfort, all of which have a significant impact
on student learning and the success of a school’s curriculum.
There has been much research to show that children learn
differently. Some learn best in a traditional classroom setting
and others learn better on their own or by using technology. New
schools need to acknowledge this and offer different types of
learning environments that allow students to be more actively
engaged and in control of the way they learn, while the faculty and
administrators maintain guidance over their experience.
As designers, when we plan a school, we focus on the strategic
integration of learning styles and technology to create flexible
spaces that encourage students to make choices about how they
learn throughout the day.
Technology may enhance learning, but there is valid concern
that children are deriving conclusions from what they find
from resources like Google rather than truly understanding
concepts. In today’s ever-evolving technology-driven society,
well-designed schools can foster choice while encouraging true
The location of technology can have a huge impact on students’
decision-making. Working with the Boston Public School
system, we placed two computer labs on opposite sides of the
new Fenway High School. One is next to the library, encouraging
students to use the library resources for research and engaged
learning. The librarian acts as a mentor and guide, helping
students develop more sophisticated methods of interaction with
the Internet. The second computer lab is located between the
front door and student commons. This location acknowledges
the social use of the Internet, creating a space where students
can interact with each other while under the guidance of school
Design for project-based learning
Project-based learning is an emerging approach that allows students
to fuse the different subjects they’ve learned into one longer-term assignment,
often as part of a group. Students learn to apply abstract concepts
and learn from each other while identifying individual strengths. Creatively
designed breakout spaces are ideal for project-based learning and
can transform underutilized areas into vibrant learning environments.
At the new King Open & Cambridge Street Upper Schools (KOCSUS)
and Community Complex, which will be Cambridge’s first Net
Zero School, third grade students constructed a working model of a
river on a large table to study water cycles, ecologies and vegetation.
We designed the KOCSUS Community Complex’s classrooms to accommodate
this type of work, creating adjacent breakout spaces that
allow students to work in settings of their choice.
Choices in common spaces
We approach shared underutilized spaces creatively to encourage
active learning beyond the classroom. At Fenway High School, we
converted a hallway into a new reading room. The space is prominently
located and furnished with casual seating to promote use.
For Boston Collegiate Charter School, an alley between two historic
buildings was transformed into a new entrance lobby that serves
as a casual gathering space. These shared, common spaces can be repurposed
in the future and enable children to select which environments
work best, influencing their growth as independent thinkers.
Commons spaces can support healthy choices, such as the trend
for cafeterias to be more like cafes. Fenway High School prides itself
on incorporating nutritional planning into its thinking about student
welfare, so the new student common was designed to feel like a café.
In partnership with Project Bread, a Boston based non-profit, the
café serves as a test kitchen for an in-house chef, allowing students
to try out recipes. Sixteen student approved dishes are now featured
on the school’s menus, and five have been introduced to other Boston
schools. Students have come to think about food more creatively and
are developing a better understanding of healthy eating.
It is well known that not all students learn in the same way, so
providing children with choices throughout the day can help them
make smart decisions as they grow intellectually. As designers, we
listen closely to a school’s mission and curriculum, designing flexible
spaces to meet the evolving needs of students, teachers, and technologies.
It is our goal to deliver creatively designed learning environments
that support today’s rapidly evolving instructional delivery.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
Laurence Spang, LEED-AP, is a principal at Arrowstreet, an architectural firm located in Boston.