Many educators contend that a small school provides the best learning environment. Proponents say small schools offer a more personalized, caring climate and the flexibility to address individual learning needs. Large-school proponents emphasize the benefits of more comprehensive curricular and extracurricular experiences. And, they point to lower per-student costs in larger schools.
Educators have long strived to create the best school environment regardless of size. In the 1960s, individualized education using modular scheduling was the focus. Architects responded with flexible spaces. The school-within-a-school, academic clusters and house concepts turned large schools into smaller units.
Individualized education was repackaged in the 1980s as outcome-based education. The interdisciplinary clusters and teams of the 1960s evolved into integrated curriculum. Flexible and block scheduling were introduced. Architects refined their concepts and converted large schools into smaller learning environments.
Key issues to consider when creating a learning environment:
- Values and purposes
Physical facilities are designed to support a conceptual statement of values and purposes. Unfortunately, many schools have been designed as warehouses and do not ignite the desire to be educated. Schoolhouses operate on two planes of reality. First, the schoolhouse is where people assemble for teaching and learning. Second, it is a space that affects feelings — in the way it conveys respect or lack of it for its occupants. This is apparent in the design ingredients — shapes, forms, colors, textures, systems and furnishings.
- Human factors in building design
Facility design either can enhance or inhibit teaching and learning. A humanized environment that stimulates interest and provides motivation for learning needs to create a sense of place, community, presence, comfort, security, aesthetics, performance and privacy.
To adjust to changes, facilities need flexibility in layout, such as demountable and movable walls or non-load-bearing interior walls and furnishings.
Schools need to create units of no more than 600 students. Various teaching strategies should be available to accommodate individual learning styles.
Once a design has been completed, the administration and staff are key ingredients for success. In some cases, facilities are not used as intended — original planning concepts have been ignored because of changes in the school board, administration or staff. Administrators should make sure all are committed to the educational philosophy, organizational concepts and delivery methodology.
Involve an architect during the startup of a new school to orient the staff into how spaces are designed to function best. Staff members may need in-service training for some new technologies, systems and furnishings.
A successful learning environment benefits from the positive attitudes of the entire school community and on the appropriate educational program — enhanced with the correct facility design.
Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis.
He can be reached at [email protected].