21st Century Learning Environments – Architecture as Three-Dimensional Textbooks

Categories: Insight

School for Creative and Performing Arts common space with abundant natural lighting
Movement diagram depicting movement of occupants within the space
Mars Hill Academy Public Space

Since the mid-1970s, a growing body of scientific evidence has supported the correlation between architecturally-specific design features in school buildings and student behavior and performance. In fact, as far back as the 1920s, industrial research has established a direct relationship between environmental factors and employee productivity. Yet over the last several decades, little, if any, input on what makes a school a great place to learn has effectively changed the K12 learning environment in America.

The classic illustration of teaching, the Socratic method, often depicted through the image of a teacher under a tree with students at their feet, suggests good teachers alone make successful students. Up until 50 years ago, the interface between education and design remained unexplored. Architects produced inexpensive schools to accommodate the baby boom, underscored by an agrarian model designed to warehouse children between the family farm labor needs.

In 1977, a masterwork authored by architecture professors at the University of California established patterns of space usage that promote community and influence learning and achievement. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later when research projects conducted in Milwaukee; Saginaw, Michigan and Syracuse, New York, combined with research by Dr. Kenneth Tanner of the University of Georgia, Dr. Jeffrey Lackney at UNC Chapel Hill and Dr. Glen Earthman of Virginia Tech identified multiple design factors that contribute to higher outcomes and a more enriching experience for students.

As architects of educational environments, we have come to understand that there are three broad qualities of high achieving schools.

I. Movement Systems

Research in the field of environmental psychology has studied the types of circulation systems in and around buildings toward main entrances, pathways surrounding and connecting buildings, corridors and main internal circulation and levels of personal space and social distance, but its relevance to the world of educational environments has only recently been discovered. There are a series of factors in this category of space making that have a profound impact on the way children use a building and perceive their environment, including student traffic patterns, destination points and incidental spaces. These all help to create the perception of a school environment. Another fundamental element of a successful student structure is the feeling of density – complex structures that students feel crowded by are not conducive to learning.

II. Age-Appropriate Design

The organization of a building’s many spaces, the hierarchy that is established and how it is expressed architecturally can have a profound impact on learning and a student’s ability to feel connected to and a part of the school community. Students are naturally disposed toward respectful behavior and a willingness to cooperate and contribute to the classroom. The development of spaces that engage, challenge and arouse a student’s imagination are needed now more than ever before. Architectural features should include welcoming, age-appropriate building entrances that are highly-visible destination points. Huge, overpowering entrances and lobbies are intimidating to small learners. Schools with obvious reference points and simple systems of wayfinding that convey a sense of community and differentiate between public and more intimate spaces help to draw students to the right place naturally.

III. Daylighting and Environment

Considerable research has taught us that an abundance of natural light and a visual connection to the immediate environment at key places in a building enhances student learning. Windowless environments and interior spaces with no sense of connectedness to the school or its context work against student achievement. In fact, it’s been documented that as much as a 20-30% increase in test scores can be attributed to natural light. Rather than the commonly held belief that it’s a distraction, an extension to the outdoors and plenty of windows provide a necessary relief for students and contribute to their well-being. Less tardiness and absenteeism has even been linked to these design features.

Another piece of the natural light puzzle is how we use full spectrum light and artificial light. The movement away from fluorescent to full spectrum LED lighting has continued the migration to a healthier, developmentally-sound, ambient environment.

In 1944, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is poignantly true when it comes to well-conceived educational environments, designed to promote high student outcomes. With a dozen more design features that have continued to evolve in the 21st century as we move toward “discovery-based learning environments” over teacher-centered environments, we’ll continue to explore the ways well-designed schools can help students feel well, think well and perform well.

Interested in learning more about 21st Century Learning Environments?

Contact CR today!

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