Facility Planning

Creative Flexibility

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.

Integrating technology

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 conceptual learning.

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 administrators.

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.

About the Author

Laurence Spang, LEED-AP, is a principal at Arrowstreet, an architectural firm located in Boston.

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