Asumag 2635 Headshot Tom Tapper

Facility Planning: I Can’t Imagine!

April 1, 2015
Facilitating positive reactions to innovative school designs.

Have you ever shared a personal story that stretches the imagination of your listener, prompting responses like “Really? ” “I don’t believe you! ” or possibly “I can’t imagine!”

When educational leaders and school architects are designing a truly innovative school the response from the community, parents and even teachers may be similarly incredulous.

Expectations for student outcomes have changed. There is still the fundamental belief that students must master “the three Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic; a belief that is grounded in state-mandated testing and the national push for a standardized curriculum known as Common Core. But that mandate may also be extended to incorporate essential skills of communication, collaboration, and creativity, in the form of small group learning, hands-on project-based learning, interactive/integrated technology and collaborative work groups.

Today’s educational spaces are designed specifically to support these changing teaching/learning practices. Key descriptors of these spaces include:

  • Flexible – Capable of accommodating small/large group instruction. 
  • Collaborative – Incorporating breakout areas where students can problem-solve and merge creative ideas.
  • Technologically enriched – The capacity to accommodate bring-yourown- device (BYOD) learning and interactive learning with students nationwide/worldwide.
  • Activity-centered – Spaces that support hands-on learning and provide opportunities for students to share/demonstrate their work.
  • Eco-friendly – Learning areas that are well-lit and transition naturally into the environment around the school.

So, how do schools designed with these characteristic features overcome the “I can’t imagine…” reaction?

  1. Listen to students. Even our youngest learners can describe learning spaces that work for them. When asked what a new school should look like, they describe schools where technology is ever-present, where they can take things apart and put them back together again, and where they can work together with friends or simply be alone to read.
  2. Challenge and support teachers. Set expectations and provide opportunities for teachers to incorporate differentiated instruction into their teaching practices. Staff development that encourages collaborative planning is essential. But equally important are opportunities for teachers to get out of their comfort-zone to see how innovative design enhances the teaching/ learning process. Visiting neighboring schools is one way to accomplish this. Another is visiting modern corporate office environments with technologyrich, collaborative planning spaces and well-lit areas that simulate/incorporate nature.
  3. Educate the community. Institute a community task force that shadows visits by teachers and administrators. Create virtual tours of innovative schools and other learning spaces. Students can be very helpful in developing these tours. And provide opportunities for the community to see changes taking place in the teaching/ learning processes. Those opportunities should include talking with students and understanding how they learn and demonstrate their learning.

Disbelief in an innovative school design does not have to be a dead end. Skeptical responses can be overcome by taking the steps described above, allowing the community to see, hear, touch and feel design innovation.

Tapper is senior educational planner for ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis. He has more than 40 years of experience in public schools.

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