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Tips for Designing Learning Spaces to Foster 21st-century skills

These tips and pictures are adapted from The Architecture of Ideal Learning Environment

In recent years, architectural firms specializing in school design have been researching ways to utilize smart infrastructure to promote learning in the 21st century. According to the OECD, students now need modern, progressive learning spaces to better hone in their real-world skills such as collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking. From technology integration to outdoor learning, these school design elements will enhance the productivity and curate students' passion.

Technology integration

When we talk about technology being a central focus of school design, we did not mean installing a few computer labs and putting a projector in every classroom. That much effort might be enough 10 years ago; however, we have to constantly improve to let students genuinely immerse in a 4.0 world. They have been so accustomed to technology on the tips of their fingers, and the kind of technology exposure they have at home needs to be transferred into their school environment.

School designers have found different ways to wire the whole school with immersive tech—projectors, sound systems, and screens migrate from closed classrooms to outdoor settings, cafeterias, hallways, and shared spaces. If done correctly, students can access the network anywhere on campus and view and share work on digital displays throughout the building. An example of technology integration would be Ecole Kenwood French Immersion School, a pre-K to sixth grade public magnet school in Columbus, Ohio, designed by Fanning Howey. In this school, the stairway has been utilized as a seating area for students with an overhead projector, a large projection screen, a sound reinforcement system, and wireless access. Students and teachers use this space to project their presentations as part of project-based learning.

Transparent classroom

Architectural transparency, the principle of visual interconnectedness, is an emerging standard in new school construction. Progressive schools are taking design inspiration from cutting-edge work environments such as Google and Apple campuses. Collaboration is enhanced and facilities like hallways, classrooms, and cafeteria are now open-spaced, which has utilized glass partitions and given way to uninterrupted lines of sight.

Having an open learning zone makes learning communal and encourages collaboration. It creates a public forum for celebrating and observing student work, according to leading educational architects.

Another work by Fawning Howey that utilizes this design philosophy is the common area at British International School Houston. It is called Agora—Greek for “gathering place”—which is modeled on the public courtyards at the heart of city life in ancient Greece. Located at the ground level of the school, it is the center of all actions. Students work individually or collaboratively, from static activities like reading to dynamic ones like building a robot. What makes the space unique from traditional schools is that all the classroom walls surrounding the Agora are framed in floor-to-ceiling glass. Students of all ages can see and be seen from this central gathering place, peering into others' classrooms to view what they're doing while being observed at their own work.

Multi-purpose space

So long as the time when rooms can only be used for one purpose. Because construction space becomes increasingly scarce, school architects need to think outside the box and start working on multi-purpose learning spaces. Corridors are being widened to become classroom extensions, stairs are turning into seating space, and walls throughout the building are displaying Wi-Fi-enabled TV screens. Meanwhile, single-use rooms like cafeteria and libraries are being designed to function as hybrid theaters, makerspaces, and media centers.

Truly flexible spaces should also meet educators' day-to-day needs to create instructional variety—direct instruction, group work, independent work—by quickly altering their environments. Schools should have lightweight chairs, beanbags, area rugs, tables of different heights, and even movable or foldable walls, which can be modified to suit project-based learning or direct instruction.

Outdoor learning space

In this 2006 article about the value of outdoor learning for secondary school students, researchers have concluded that experiential learning, though scarce, has various benefits for students’ learning trajectories.

According to leading education architects, some outdoor learning environments can be designed with the same intention as indoor classrooms. Some examples of functional outdoor spaces include group of benches, an amphitheater, or a partially covered workspace with amenities like Wi-Fi and supplies, all of which support students’ education. Like classrooms, these outdoor spaces are designated for instruction, presentations, or independent and group work. Still, they provide a fresh perspective for students who spend most of the school days indoors.

At Daugherty Elementary, a public school in Garland, Texas, the architecture and design firm Corgan created a learning courtyard that offers a variety of educational zones connected to Texas state standards. On the pavement, there are imprints of fossils native to Texas. Shadow walls—where suspended panels with cutout images cast shadows as the sun shines through the cutouts—teach students about the earth’s rotation and seasonal cycles as shadows cast by the sun shift positions and lengths.


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