Asumag 2634 Headshot James Rydeen

Facility Planning: Education Innovation

May 1, 2015
Innovative school design must be responsive and adaptable.

Forty years ago, many schools were designed with “open plan” concepts using modular-flexible scheduling to respond to new philosophies of individualized education and interdisciplinary teaching. In the late 1980s, school designs responded to outcome-based education (OBE). In the 1990s, integrated thematic curriculum required innovative designs. Throughout this period, many schools were still designed with traditional self-contained classrooms.

New educational philosophies frequently require innovative designs, moving people from their comfort zone. Innovative design invokes more than space and function. It includes aesthetics and human factors. To introduce innovative design you must:

  • Examine educational philosophies, curricular concepts, and teaching and delivery methodologies.
  • Recognize that innovative design involving existing staff is different than hiring new staff.
  • Identify who wants innovative design: administration, staff, students and/or the public.
  • Develop design goals that define flexibility and spatial relationships.
  • Recognize that innovative design looks to the future, forcing change.
  • Hire staff committed to new educational concepts in non-traditional facilities.

Lessons can be drawn from a range innovative school designs:

  • A K-6 school was needed, serving three districts. Administrators, teachers, and community leaders researched trends for a multi-age school offering team-teaching with two alternative calendar options. The design allowed for flexible groupings in three “neighborhoods” with open/flexible classrooms. A principal and staff were hired, but had not participated in the initial planning phase. Consequently, they experienced difficulty adjusting to the design. A new principal, who was involved in the design, was hired several years later. He embraced the cutting-edge educational philosophies; the education program, student achievement, and social development flourished. It is crucial that a school’s staff is in-tune with the design philosophy from early stages, or to train them after planning is complete.
  • A school district jumped at the opportunity to innovate with “learning stairs” as part of its radical high school renovation. The stairs connect floors, vertically opening the commons area. The flexible area encourages student presentations and performances, and is an exciting space to collaborate/socialize or study individually. Until school administration, staff, and the community actually see, feel and touch the innovation, a major functional design highlight may be a hard sell.
  • A retiring superintendent, administrators and a school board decided to create a second high school based on the “open/flexible classroom” concept, but eschewed teacher involvement. Consequently, staff disdained the resulting facility. The open classrooms with folding partitions remained self-contained for years.
  • A school district designed their new high school to embrace OBE. By the time the school opened, OBE was out. But innovative design has allowed the facility to respond to many changes in curriculum, scheduling (three-, four-, five-, and six-period days), and project-based deliveries since it opened 25 years ago.

In the Knowledge Age change, not stability, is a given. Spatial confines and the configuration of a space—including fixtures, furniture and equipment—must evolve constantly to meet changing approaches to teaching/learning. The original “open-plan design” has influenced newer refined concepts with innovations that successfully adapt to a variety of class sizes and learning activities. Accommodate the diverse learning abilities and talents of every student so all are motivated to learn. And help administrators, staff and the community to create the most responsive learning environments for students today and in the future!

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

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