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Designing Schools That
Enhance Student Learning


The average school and classroom designs haven't changed in decades, but some architects maintain that a few renovations could make classrooms more student-centered and lead improvements in test scores. Included: Ideas for child-centered classrooms.

Some people would argue that the only important aspect of a room is what takes place in it. But in the book, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning, authors Trung Le and Rick Dewar maintain that the designs of schools and classrooms can have a tremendous -- and mostly overlooked -- impact on learning.

Trung Le

The two have spent a lot of time working on school designs. Le is the lead designer for OWP/P | Cannon Designs education group and Rick Dewar, also of OWP/P | Cannon, has spent several decades working on K-12 designs and projects.

To emphasize the importance of the school environment on learning and teaching outcomes and to keep the dialogue going, OWP/P | Cannon Design also started The Third Teacher, which the authors describe as a place for everyone to engage with the reality that the environment matters.

Le and Dewar talked with Education World about the role of building and classroom designs in student learning.

Education World: Beyond the obvious of being clean and hazard-free, what would the ideal learning environment look like for elementary-school students? How about secondary-school students?

Trung Le and Rick Dewar: Most of today's classrooms are designed with the teacher at the center. But if the classroom is focused on the learner instead, then learning becomes paramount.

Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory is implicitly asking the designer of the learning environment to consider a variety of learning spaces -- spaces in diverse sizes, materials, and colors as well as spaces with different transparency, connectivity, and agility. The one-size-fits-all idea reality isnt acceptable anymore.

We hear so much talk about limited resources, not only in terms of money, but also in terms of space. We collaborated with VS, a German furniture manufacturer, on an exercise to answer the question, What can we do with 400 square feet -- beyond just setting desks and chairs up in a row? It is remarkable what you can do if you start from that question and are given the right kinds of furniture -- how agile you can make the space, how media-rich you can make it, and how you can engage different modes of learning.

EW: How would these ideal learning environments feel?

If we truly believe that creativity is an essential ingredient in a child's development, then we need to shift completely away from the cells and bells model of school design.

Le and Dewar: If we truly believe that creativity is an essential ingredient in a child's development, then we need to shift completely away from the cells and bells model of school design -- with classrooms as cells and the school bell indicating the time to move from one to another. So the fundamental question we should be asking is, does this learning environment support a child's natural instinct to learn through creation and discovery? Our learning environments should be open to supporting the creative process.

Rather than students moving when this bell rings, eating when that one rings, we can shift from this model in simple ways. In one of our projects, we introduced a caf into a small learning academy, so students can take a break and get a snack when they are hungry or thirsty rather than when the bell rings.

EW: Can you give some examples of how changes to the learning environment affect student and teacher performance?

Rick Dewar

Le and Dewar: We have some great examples, and a lot of them are really simple. For instance, A.E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has integrated artwork into the school building -- two- and three-dimensional work. We created galleries off the main circulation space just for displaying student artwork. The school has developed a program for buying the best student works. That happens every year. The students get a small sum, their work goes on permanent display, and they learn that it has value, not only to them, but also to people who experience it. The program is modest, but it gives students the recognition and self-confidence they need to develop their creative talents.

Changes to the learning environment also can have an impact on the community beyond the school. We worked on a school on Chicagos South Side. It was on the site of an elementary school that had been vacant for 14 years, and had become a real blight on the neighborhood. Chicago Public Schools decided to buy the site and develop a new high school there. The community has a rich African-American culture, so the school was named Ralph Ellison -- after the author of Invisible Man.

We thought about how the new building represented Ellisons ideas -- that intellectual discovery is a means to freedom. We found a great quote from the book and sandblasted it onto the glass face of the building. We wanted it to be subtle enough to instill a sense of wonderment in the students and also big enough to engage the community around the school. It looks like that may be happening; a nearby resident who was very critical of the project initially, now says the school is one of the greatest things to happen in the neighborhood. Hes now convinced the school is going to produce great leaders.

EW: Why havent learning environments received more attention as part of the school-reform movement?


Le and Dewar: Its a difficult question. Last year, Cameron Sinclair wrote a piece on Huffington Post in response to Secretary of Educations Arne Duncans statement that its not about the building in terms of school reform. He respectfully disagrees with Secretary Duncans claim, as do we.

Teacher performance has been a major focus of analysis about reforming schools, and that is thoroughly important, but we know that the learning and teaching environment is also important in making education systems work well.

This dismissive reaction is exactly why we worked with VS Furniture and Bruce Mau Design to write The Third Teacher. Its a book thats filled with facts, interviews, excerpts and stories, as well as 79 practical ideas for design to transform teaching and learning. The title comes from a quote by Italian teacher and psychologist Loris Malaguzzi. Malaguzzi developed the Reggio Emilia approach to learning on the premise that children develop through interactions, first with the adults in their lives -- parents and teachers -- and then with their peers, and ultimately with the environment around them. Environment is the third teacher.

This e-interview with Trung Le and Rich Dewar is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.





Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World


Published 08/17/2010