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Make Sure Your Contributions Really Count When Planning New Schools
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, former school superintendent Ted Merritt reflects on his current work as a school planner. Envisioning classroom spaces is not always easy for teachers, so Merritt uses a couple of tools to help teachers think outside the box. Included: Share your thoughts about the perfect classroom!




Ted Merritt

During the years I served as a superintendent, I participated in planning quite a few new schools. I never really understood the challenges of creating a new facility from an architect's perspective, however. Although I'd long been interested in the future of education and educational technology, I had never fully grasped the impact of a school building's design on learning.

That all began to change three years ago when I retired from the Connecticut public schools and took the position of director of educational planning and research for an architecture and engineering firm. Today, I'm deeply involved in helping districts prepare forward-thinking educational specifications for new elementary, middle, high, and magnet schools. That involves talking to a lot of people, teachers included, about their visions for the future.



In many discussions I've had with teachers during the past few years, I've discovered that teachers, who are always under such great pressure to cope with day-to-day demands, often don't have time left over to think about how learning spaces might be changed -- maybe even in some fundamental ways -- to foster new and better educational approaches.

Sure, every teacher I've met has come to the table with a list of needs and wishes for his or her new classroom. Better furniture, more storage space, effective temperature control -- that is just a brief sampling of the concerns teachers typically raise. Many teachers, frustrated by the inadequate facilities they work in, don't understand that these are the kinds of things that any good architect will deal with routinely. What designers really need from them is imaginative thinking about how educational space might be re-conceptualized to enhance future learning.

How does virtual instruction alter science-lab requirements? To what degree does wireless communication limit the need for dedicated computer space? How do large- and small-group learning experiences influence space needs? How can a media center become more instrumental in teaching kids to solve problems? Those are a few of the big questions that a truly visionary educational building specification must attempt to answer.


To help steer teachers clear of mundane, though very understandable, concerns about desks and chairs, washbasins, and whiteboards, I've taken to using two tools to help them focus on the larger issues. The first is a sample ed spec. By looking together at an innovative educational specification prepared by another district, the teachers and I engage in a highly creative editing process, dialoguing about how this or that space-planning approach might address future challenges. Following are just a few of the concepts that frequently fuel discussion:

  • Organize classroom space for easy reconfiguration of furniture; that permits changing patterns of large- and small-group interaction as well as individual study.
  • Utilize acoustical treatments on classroom walls to allow a number of small-group discussions to go on simultaneously, without disturbing neighboring groups.
  • Provide separate, outside-the-classroom offices for teachers, fostering higher classroom utilization rates and giving each teacher a place to work without interruption.
  • Limit classroom size and use the space that's saved for "agoras" or "kivas," where multi-class or cross-grade integrated learning can occur.
  • Designe the classroom to accommodate technological change.


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The second tool is a kind of document most teachers have never seen: a sample set of program requirements with detailed floor plans, drawn to scale, of classrooms and other learning spaces. This document can be very useful in translating architects' abstract language into meaningful pictures of how spaces can be differently sized and configured. Would a smaller classroom be workable? The sample program requirements can show a teacher how, for example, that might be possible -- and how space shaved from individual classrooms might augment other learning spaces in the new school building. Of course, after looking at the sample, a teacher might decide, for good reason, that the classroom should be larger. The point is that teachers begin to see how every space-related decision affects the dynamic of the whole facility.

Teachers' contributions to an educational specification are crucial to a project's success. To make sure those contributions really count, I'm encouraging teachers to think "outside the box" of the traditional classroom and traditional methods. In some cases, that exercise validates the tried-and-true, but in others we experience "breakthrough" thinking.


Edwin T. Merritt, Ed.D., is director of educational planning and research for Fletcher-Thompson, Inc. and the lead author of two new books, The High School of the Future and The Elementary School of the Future, both published by Learning Publications.