I recently moved into a new position within my school, a portion of which will have me leading the development of a campus master plan. This, in turn, has led me to start reviewing the relationship between architecture, teaching, and learning.
Among the half-dozen or so books I have been reading on the subject is Architecture for Achievement: Building Patterns for Small School Learning (Amazon citation), by Victoria Bergsagel, Tim Best, et al. All of the authors are associated with Architects of Achievement, an educational consulting firm.
Architecture for Achievement represents a great place for those interested in contemporary school design to start their reading. The book’s bias towards smaller schools, with flexible learning spaces that provide for collaborative, project-based learning is one that resonates with me.
The book is divided into five major sections that represent design patterns, based on the work of Christopher Alexander. The design patterns for schools the authors propose lead to schools that are:
- Community-Connected, and
- Adaptable and Flexible
The authors argue that the old patterns of school design were used to “command and control large groups of students.” But as schools create new buildings and remodel existing ones, “the physical spaces they occupy have enormous power to either propel or blunt … efforts to transform teaching and learning.” They declare that the purpose of their book is to “provide the design tools to transform school buildings into more powerful places of learning.”
In twenty-six short chapters, richly illustrated with photos and drawings, the authors describe how a school’s space decisions both “express and influence its philosophy.” [emphasis added] Making the right design choices, especially when wedded to smaller schools, and resisting the “gravitational pull back to the familiar” is necessary for American schools to achieve their potential.
No aspect of school design escapes their attention. Reception areas (“greeting and gate keeping”), navigating the campus with clear signage, sidewalks with “wiggles,” and hallways that not only provide means of egress but also provide “a rich and complex indoor landscape of learning and opportunity.” Fortress-like schools with legitimate safety concerns for its students and adults can benefit from greater transparency and “passive security,” wherein everyone simply have more opportunity to see what’s going on in classrooms and student gathering places.
One striking aspect of almost all of the school designs featured in the book is very similar to what I have been observing in my own “field trips” to local examples of contemporary design: IDEO in Palo Alto and several spaces at Stanford University. Dropped ceilings are disappearing, exposing rafters, pipes, cables, duct work, and other aspects of infrastructure previously hidden from building occupants. Similarly, carpets are often removed to expose the concrete floors, especially in laboratory spaces. Not only do such design choices save money for schools, but they are also chic! Talk about a win-win.
The display of student work and its presentation to authentic audiences plays an important role in both the design of a school and the educational philosophy of the authors. We’re not talking about thirty examples of the same student worksheet posted on a wall, but artifacts of original work and creation, tastefully and professionally presented throughout the school. Trophy cases, which are often about past achievements of students who no longer attend the school, give way to displays of work that is currently happening at the school.
Perhaps no area of school design is more important, or potentially more controversial, than that of greater architectural transparency. “…most schools still close the doors on the work of students and teachers. Too often they herd people into drab and isolated boxes, feed them predigested information for used on standardized tests, and then lament than nobody has much appetite for teaching or learning. Despite their crowding, most high schools like this are lonely places for both young people and adults.” They authors, therefore, suggest a literal open door policy for teachers, more interior windows for classrooms and offices. Rather than be a distraction, such transparency can model learning and teaching going on across the school.
In addition to formal learning spaces, informal gathering spaces for small groups of students and/or adults are needed to enable collaboration and independent learning. The authors acknowledge the challenges inherent in finding the right acoustical balance between silence and the “vibrant hum that signals active and purposeful learning.” Nevertheless, there are creative ways to provide such balance without resorting to totally isolating activities from one another.
The authors don’t neglect the adult spaces, either. Collaborative spaces, private meeting rooms, and offices for teachers and administrators are also addressed. The same design patterns that apply to students areas are at work for adult spaces as well, with the authors recommending that faculty and staff experiment with offices distributed throughout the school to foster more interaction between students and adults. This is a very different model from the smoke-filled “teacher lounges” of my youth, where students were loathe to interrupt faculty in their “private space,” away from the hassle of kids.
There is much to recommend this book. I wish it was available in an e-book edition. The paper copy is not indexed (a shortcoming), so mine is peppered with notes and paper flags. I expect to be referring to it frequently in the future.