Asumag 604 Rydeen 2013

Facility Planning: Learning From the Past

May 1, 2008
Have the basics of education really changed over the years?

Open classroom, flexible classroom, transitional classroom, and now “learner-centered classroom.” Isn't that what classrooms have always been? What's different that we now are defining a classroom as learner-centered?

The concept is that learner-centered classrooms address the needs of individual students. Students have different ways of learning most effectively: some by listening; others by doing, visualizing, reading or discussing.

The breakthrough effort to create classrooms focusing on differing learning styles can be traced to Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill. Larry Perkins and Eero Saarinen collaborated on the design in 1939-40. Constructed in 1941, Crow Island became a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The school's most important feature is the architectural expression of a philosophy of progressive education. Crow Island rejected the rigid conventional classroom.

Perkins visited elementary classrooms to observe teaching and learning processes. He concluded that six factors affect elementary students: individual academics; group academics; individual activity; group activity; handling coats; and toileting.

Perkins also discovered that designs could be too specific. A classroom that is designed according to a specific teacher's request may not function effectively with a different teacher. He concluded that uncommitted permissive space is more valuable than over-designed specific space.

Crow Island's design philosophy recognizes individuality, creativity, structure, spontaneity, autonomy and collaboration in the educational process. The architecture is scaled to children — the height of door handles and blackboards, the size of window benches, and the ceiling height.

Having a 9-foot ceiling with light on two sides of the classroom was a major rebellion. The standard classroom in 1940 was 24 feet wide, 32 feet long and 12 feet high. This standard classroom was based on 30 students in fixed seats lined up in five rows with the teacher, activity and blackboard at the front. Perkins' concept used movable furniture in a unique L-shaped classroom.

In the 1960s, schools were designed to respond to the new educational philosophy of individualized education. The open plan concept, an innovation of Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL), was developed in response to changing pedagogical theory and practice. In the 1980s, school designs responded to the philosophy of outcome-based education (OBE). Today, the focus is “learner-centered classrooms.” Children are techno-savvy, and the classroom needs flexibility.

Learner-centered classrooms have experienced ongoing refinement since Crow Island was built. Perhaps architects can learn from Larry Perkins by spending time in the classroom observing teaching and learning activities.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis.

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