Reimagining the Learning Environment
Mosaic Associates Architects is an award-winning, 35-person architectural firm that specializes in designing for education, an expertise developed over the firm’s 150 years of continuous practice. At Mosaic, we believe that a better world starts with student success. We design learning environments that support educators and students. We believe that if we do our job well we will make our communities, and the world, better.
Callie Gaspary is an Associate Partner and expert in educational facility design. She is an active member of the Association for Learning Environments, currently serving as Vice President of their Northeast Regional Chapter. She will complete their Advanced Academy for Learning Spaces this year to become an Accredited Learning Environment Planner.
Why is the learning environment changing?
We know that children learn in different ways and progress at different rates, yet most of our schools and classrooms are still set up for the ‘sage on the stage’ approach, which encourages the traditional lecture style of teaching and memorization.
This made sense when it became popular during the Industrial Revolution. Students were moved quickly through instruction so they could graduate and take jobs in factories. Collaboration and critical thinking were not seen as necessary skills for a productive citizen. In today’s fast-paced world, these critical skills are considered vital in any industry.
Mastery of essential 21st-century skills requires a variety of spaces and teaching methods. Flexible learning environments allow for multiple modes of teaching and learning. For example, project-based learning (PBL) requires additional space for hands-on activities, additional storage for materials, and flexible furniture to allow students to move from individual work to group activities. PBL may involve some traditional teaching, but more often teachers act as a facilitators of learning, active participants working with their students all around the learning environment.
How is the learning environment changing?
When designing learning environments, the ultimate goal is to create spaces that foster a love of learning. Such spaces should be student centered, accommodate a variety of learning styles, provide security, and promote inclusivity. Today’s school buildings and classrooms need to stand the test of time, while being flexible enough to evolve as the needs of society change.
Effective learning environments offer a range of spaces that accommodate different activities and learning styles, promote collaboration, and provide a sense of student ownership and expression. For example, breakout spaces support small group instruction and collaborative work; presentation areas promote public speaking skills; and display areas throughout provide space to celebrate student accomplishments.
Effective learning environments must also provide for student well-being by incorporating support services and creating a healthy physical environment. Design elements like daylighting, indoor air quality, and acoustics are proven to have a major effect on a student’s: ability to learn, absenteeism, and attitude about school. Incorporating skylights and light control systems, operable windows, and HVAC systems with minimal sound reverberation can provide lasting physiological benefits for students.
Two great examples of effective 21st-century learning environments are the Shenendehowa High School East Library and the Saratoga Springs High School Project-Based Learning Center.
At the Shenedehowa High School East Library, multiple learning environments are provided. Open areas with flexible furniture support small-group activities and socialization, while carrels provide a place for quiet study.
A variety of flexible learning spaces, created by changes in floor level and movable glass walls, accommodate various teaching, learning, and collaboration modes. The overall space can accommodate multiple classes, hundreds of students, or a large public event.
The Saratoga Springs High School Project-Based Learning Center also supports the diverse needs of the school community, providing a large collaborative space, an instructional space, and a maker space. Flexible furniture and mobile whiteboards allow the collaborative area to be constantly reconfigured. Students create their own smaller spaces within the large room to meet the needs of the task at hand. This allows for maximum flexibility and instills a sense of student ownership of the space.
How has technology changed the learning environment?
Today’s digital natives skillfully leverage technology in most aspects of their daily lives. Incorporating technology into the learning environment is both essential to keeping them engaged and necessary to remain relevant. Although smart devices can make us less social, schools are using technology to promote collaboration. With cloud-based learning, students can read and write to documents from any device, allowing them to easily interact with their classmates and teachers and enabling real-time feedback and editing across the classroom or across the world.
Distance learning allows students to take classes that are not offered at their school, collaborate with students around the world, and form partnerships with entities outside their school building.
Virtual reality allows students to ‘travel’ anywhere in the world and take part in ‘activities’ they may never be exposed to. The virtual reality lab in the Shenendehowa High School East Library provides a source of learning and fun vastly different from a traditional classroom which can reach students who are otherwise difficult to engage.
Thanks to these technologies, learning can happen anywhere. So it’s important to plan for a variety of media and spaces in your design. Dedicated computer and distance-learning labs provide an organized location for in-depth computing activities, while mobile devices allow for learning in the classroom, the library, the hallway, or even outdoors. Designs must provide for all of this with powerful Wi-Fi and data infrastructure, including: data closets and cabling, charging stations, additional power, and provisions for mounting large smartboards and screens.
Items such as flexible furniture and built-in seating should be considered as well. Now that students can take their learning anywhere, comfortable spaces provide an opportunity for a change of scenery. For some, the ability to relax while learning makes their school day less rigid and more enjoyable.
How do we create welcoming schools and still keep them safe?
Schools once were, and often still are, the centers of their communities. In the wake of so many tragic events, many schools have limited access to their buildings, incorporating ‘secure vestibules’ and technology that performs visitor background checks and prints visitor passes with photo identification. These precautions have little effect on one’s ability to feel welcome in the school environment, when executed properly. If executed poorly, these provisions may have the opposite effect. Making a building appear impenetrable with bullet-proof glass, bars on windows, high fences close to the building, and metal detectors can have the unintended effect of adding to the fear and anxiety already felt by the school and community. There are times when these measures are necessary and appropriate; however there are many passive strategies that can be employed to create secure environments by diminishing the precursors to violent behavior and preventing violence before it starts.
Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) identifies passive security strategies that can be integrated into the design of buildings and environments. The principles of CPTED are:
- Natural surveillance – the use of glazing, lighting, and landscape can reduce criminal activity significantly; people are less likely to commit a crime if they think someone will see them doing it. Large amounts of glazing at building entrances allow occupants to see a threat coming and react. Although many security upgrades are based on an active shooter scenario, a more common threat is inappropriate behavior in unoccupied classrooms, closets, and other inconspicuous places. The use of glazing throughout the building can help to prevent such activity.
- Natural access control – wayfinding signage, appropriate fencing, walkways, and landscaping guide visitors to and from the building in an orderly and visible fashion. This helps prevent threats and makes the visitor experience more comfortable and easy to navigate.
- Territorial reinforcement – areas that are distinguishable for particular activities or user groups can help to establish an identity for a space and create a sense of ownership, deterring trespassers from entering areas that are ‘owned’ and protected by others.
- Maintenance – areas that are not well maintained invite damage and even criminal behavior. Students do not have a sense of pride or a desire to protect a building that appears neglected. A poorly maintained building can be unsafe, unhealthy, and can negatively affect students’ attitude about school. Clean, orderly, well-kept facilities improve mood so inhabitants will desire to keep them that way.
Where do we begin?
The educational planning process often begins with a study of enrollment and demographics to determine the physical space needs of a district. But creating optimal learning environments involves much more than a calculated square-foot-per-student formula. A truly effective learning environment is the culmination of community vision and values; teaching and learning needs and methods; desired student experience; and so much more.
Undertaking a comprehensive learning environment planning process with an Accredited Learning Environment Planner (ALEP) is a great way to establish a shared vision to guide decision making about facilities and pedagogy. An ALEP can partner with your district to:
- Establish your goals and aspirations for education
- Create an action plan to achieve these goals, and
- Inform the design of environments that will support them.
To do this, an ALEP will engage the community and district stakeholders in developing an educational vision for their schools. They use that vision to develop educational specifications and long-range facilities master plans, which guide the design of learning environments, ensuring that they will facilitate your goals and aspirations.
The Association for Learning Environments, the accrediting authority for the ALEP designation, is a great resource for educational planning information. Their website, www.a4le.org, contains many informative presentations and webinars related to learning environments and their development.