Mug Paul Erickson
Mug Paul Erickson
Mug Paul Erickson
Mug Paul Erickson
Mug Paul Erickson

Student-Centered Learning (Part 1)

Sept. 22, 2022
Student-centered learning has shifted teacher-controlled protocols – moving from lecture settings to diverse teaching methods.

(This is part one of a three-part series)

Educators and architects, breaking new ground in best practices for teaching and learning, are creating new types of school spaces. Studies on how physical space affects education and social well-being have led to new ways to support student-centered learning, empowering students to learn differently from historical doctrine.

Student-centered learning has shifted teacher-controlled protocols – moving from lecture settings to diverse teaching methods, from specified time and varied learning to specified learning outcomes in varied time frames, from teacher transfer of knowledge to student discovery and understanding, and  from “one size fits all” to “each student is unique.” In school design, the shift moves from classrooms only to a variety of different learning spaces and settings.

Throughout preK-12 education years, students are taught to keep an open mind to innovative ideas and viewpoints. Educators and architects should use the same approach in designing spaces for schools. The terms “flexible,” “adaptable,” and “movable” describe capabilities that lead to spatial diversity, supporting student-centered learning.

Physical Impact

Design a building’s structural system to enhance spatial flexibility. Long-span joists, deck, and floor systems allow for expansive column-free area and provide greater ability to configure space. Varied ceiling heights provide more flexibility to create interesting learning environments. Overhead structural beams designed to support suspended movable partitions allow spaces to quickly accommodate different learning arrangements. The outdated structural bearing-wall systems that form “classroom-corridor-classroom” eggcrate layouts, continuous wall obstructions, and constraints in design flexibility are hindrances to avoid.

In the design evolution of building circulation, codes have played a significant role. Building codes now permit facilities with building-wide fire suppression sprinkler systems to be “reclassified,” eliminating corridor fire-rating requirements (i.e., fire dampers, fire-rated doors, door closers, minimal openings and size limitations). This game-changer introduces glass walls, expansive operable wall and door openings, and furniture and furnishings into circulation space.

Circulation Space

With reclassified corridor design, learning and collaboration areas and transparency between spaces are easily incorporated into circulation pathways. This change increases space utilization. Architects and educators now view circulation paths not only as exit routes, but also as learning areas for individualized study, small group work, impromptu collaboration, social interaction, and just-in-time teacher-student coaching.

At the Rushford-Peterson PreK-12 School in Minnesota, new types of activities are designed into widened circulation areas including tech/genius bars, “fishbowls” (i.e., glass-enclosed small group rooms), recessed nook seating areas, learning stairs, art display pods, learning graphics, and other features. Circulation space, which makes up 35% of the building’s square footage, is transformed into learning space for about 95% of the school day.

Learning Zone

The term classroom could be renamed “learning zone” to emphasize the shift from teacher-directed class instruction to student-centered activity-based learning. Design the space with every wall as a technology-rich front wall. Provide mobile screens and operable partitions to create various-sized spaces with seating options for individual study and small group collaboration. Group six to eight learning zones together with support areas to form a learning cluster.

Specialty and Core Spaces

Specialty spaces are integral to student-centered learning. They include flexible team learning areas, SMART rooms, maker spaces, STEM/STEAM areas, CTE spaces, FAB labs, science research labs, learning stairs and outdoor spaces.

Core spaces are taking on new purposes, shedding former designs and functions. Learning commons, student dining facilities, physical education spaces, administrative spaces, wellness/calming centers, school stores and coffee shops, black boxes for performance and presentation, windowed mechanical rooms for real-world learning, and other spaces are being reimagined.

Paul W. Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, executive officer & partner, is past president of ATSR Planners/Architects/Engineers. He has 45 years of experience in school planning, design, and construction. Mr. Erickson can be reached at [email protected].

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