Facilities & Design

Building Trendy K-12 Schools

What educational trends must today’s school buildings match up with? How can school design help?

The world of education is changing more quickly and more comprehensively than ever before. Two key developments are effectively changing the traditional design of K-12 schools.

First, there are new and continually evolving approaches to the task of teaching that are affecting the physical design of classrooms.

Second, as you might imagine in today’s world, it is important to assure the security of students without locking up schools as if they are prisons. Evolving school design concepts can help with security, too.

Educational Trends are Calling for New Classroom Designs

K-12 schools are perhaps in the midst of the longest running trend ever to arise in education. It is the trend away from classical classroom instruction in which a teacher standing at the front of the classroom lectures 20 or 30 students seated at desks.

Today, however, more and more teachers are breaking their classes up into small discussion groups of five or six students, who then talk about the subject under study. The discussions range across a variety of topics, from what is in the textbook to local problems related to the world outside of school. The teacher moves from group to group with the goal of ensuring that students understand the material and are engaging in useful discussions.

Informality reigns in today’s schools, according to Todd Ferking, AIA, DLR Group principal from the Seattle office of DLR Group.

“There are parallels to coffee shop culture,” Ferking says. “Indeed, the lines between eating, learning and playing are blurring, and students are moving from one activity to another easier and faster.

“In addition, the educational spaces themselves are breaking down into smaller and smaller units. A single classroom today might house several groups of students, each studying different subjects.

“This is a new system, of course. The old system worked well for a lot of students, but not so well for slower learners and students who didn’t like school. This new approach is proving to work better for students who didn’t care to engage with the old system.”

Classrooms are quite different today. While in class in a new school, students may sit or recline on living room style furniture—sofas and easy chairs—or on cushions strewn across the floor. For those who have writing to do or just prefer sitting at desks, there are desks in the classroom as well.

In many schools, the traditional classrooms may have become outmoded. Classes might be conducted in buildings other than the school itself or even outside.

Here’s an example, offered by William Payne, AIA, chief executive officer and principal with the Indianapolis offices of Fanning Howey, an integrated architecture, interiors, and engineering firm specializing in the design of learning environments.

“Suppose a school is next to a creek that is polluted—a serious and legitimate real-world problem offering a potential learning experience,” says Payne.

Students might report the problem to the proper authorities at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and perhaps even offer to assist, in safe, unobtrusive ways, as a remediation effort is mounted. Just think how valuable such an experience would be compared to reading a textbook. Even the least studious of students might find himself or herself observing and questioning the clean-up effort first hand.

Consider, too, the various disciplines such an adventure might tap. Not just environmental cleanup, but chemistry would be required to diagnose the problem. Geography and topography would map out the contours of the affected land. Depending upon how long the class worked outside, camping and other outdoor disciplines might come into play. All are learning experiences quite different from those available in a traditional classroom.

Time to Go Back Inside

Of course, many, if not most, classes are still conducted in classrooms inside schools, but trends have changed the design of indoor classrooms, as well.

Today, what used to be individual classrooms may have seen the walls removed to create large spaces with several wall-less suites available to several teachers and several classes.

There are new names for spaces as well. There are “maker” spaces designed for tinkering with burgeoning digital technologies. Makerspaces have become so common that they have become a one-word term: makerspaces. These repurposed spaces aim to support instruction as well as computer work, media and other undertakings.

In short, school spaces are no longer designed to support one activity.

Security Concerns are Also Affecting School Design

Perhaps chief among today’s security challenges is the problem of controlling who, beyond students, teachers and authorized adults, can get into schools.

In recent years, emotionally compromised adults or troubled students have shown up at schools with guns and started shooting. That’s only one bad scenario to worry about. In other cases, adults have entered elementary schools or even schools with higher grades to molest or even kidnap students.

To deal with these and other threats, some districts have hired security professionals to patrol their school buildings and their entrances.

In addition, many school designs have positioned a security vestibule outside the front door of the school building. In such schools, the vestibule as well as other school doors are locked after students enter the schools in the morning. The only way for anyone to enter such schools during the day is to apply to a staffer inside the main vestibule at the front door.

“We create security tools in and around these vestibules, as well as in the reception and administrative areas inside schools,” says H. William Novian, a senior associate with JMT Architecture headquartered in Hunt Valley, Md.

“The vestibule is a separate area positioned in front of the administrative and classroom areas of the school. To enter the school, a visitor must negotiate his or her way through the staffed vestibule.”

At the vestibule, a security staffer will ask questions of visitors. May I see your identification? Next comes a series of questions that must be answered without reference to ID cards, which remain with the security person. What is your name and address? What is your business here today? And so on.

The vetting continues inside the school’s front door, where the secretary or other employee in the administrative area of the school will observe the visitor, take his or her ID and run the driver’s license through a system specially designed to call out individuals with records of bad acts, criminal or otherwise. Finally, the visitor will receive a visitor’s badge with his or her name on it. Sometimes the badges are color coded in ways that identify where in the school the visitor has been cleared to go.

These various vetting tasks might be assigned differently, with the visitor having his or her ID vetted at the vestibule and only showing the ID at the office inside the school. It all depends upon how the school wants to organize the process.

In the end, educational trends and security concerns are leading communities and administrators to ask school architects and designers to think about new approaches to school design that not only enhance educational experiences but also help to ensure the safety and security of students, faculty and administrators. It is a challenging undertaking, especially compared to the way schools have been designed in the past.

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