Asumag 2638 Headshot Tom Tapper

Facility Planning: Breaking the Line

May 1, 2016
How recent brain research is overturning a century of “assembly line” education design.

Changing educational pedagogy can be a drawn-out process. A look at school design illustrates that reality. Across our nation, school design and construction has changed little during the past three-quarters of a century; some might argue over an entire century!  

The basic construct model evolved out of the industrial age’s assembly-line approach to mass production. School designs for most of the 20th century were derivatives of the factory. Hallways functioned as conveyor belts and classrooms were the workers. Since elementary students were viewed as simple “assembles,” only one station was deemed necessary. At each stop, another “piece” of knowledge was placed into the student’s brain. Little exercise was required. The end of the assembly line, for most students, was graduation. This design worked well because it supported the one-size-fits-all educational practices that prevailed throughout much of the 20th century. 

But things began to change, albeit slowly, in educational pedagogy beginning in the latter half of the century. One of the driving forces behind those changes was the research conducted by psychologist Howard Gardner, detailed in his work, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” Human intelligence is more than just the ability to read, write and compute. Gardner found that the human brain processes information using a variety of modalities including music, kinesthetics, interpersonal sensitivities, intrapersonal reflections, and spatial visualization, in addition to the traditional intelligences of linguistics and mathematical reasoning.

To engage every child, educators now often work to identify the primary mode by which a child most effectively learns and then to deliver instruction through that modality. 

So how can design support this goal? Helping students to exercise the linguistic and mathematical reasoning functions of the brain is relatively straightforward. But to cater to the remaining learning modalities, more dramatic designs are needed. Music/performance requires “micro stages” that provide students with the opportunity to learn using non-traditional forms of communication. Kinesthetic learning spaces go beyond the traditional gymnasium and include areas for walking while learning. Hallways become opportunities for students to interact with their learning environment instead of simply passing through.

Intrapersonal reflection requires spaces that provide solitude; smaller areas where students can interact with mentors. Interpersonal sensitivity spaces are larger and provide opportunities for students to collaboratively plan together and develop leadership skills. And spatial visualization areas provide opportunities for students to literally and figuratively take things apart and put them back together again to discover how they work.

Given the glacial pace of change in educational pedagogy, designing schools around the current science of brain function and exercise can be challenging. This challenge is heightened when you recognize that school construction is generational in nature. The industrial age assembly-line production model remains largely intact, save for a few added features that acknowledge some of the changes in the educational delivery system. Buildings are designed to last 50 years at a minimum. 

The opportunity to design and construct spaces that support the changing instructional pedagogy influenced by brain research is rare. But each should be embraced with a level of excitement and with a clear understanding of how the brain works and what building designs might best support those diverse ways of learning.

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