Planning for a new generation of learners

08/21/2013  |  By CARISIMA A. KOENIG and KIMBERLY A. WILLIAMS
School Environments
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What should schools and districts know before building a facility?

As design professionals, how can we frame this question with a different lens and ask it in another way? What thoughts, concerns, ideals and aspirations do school districts have for their students that planners and designers should know prior to starting the process? You may not know the answer. You may not know how design can help realize your goals.

To achieve successful building design, there needs to be open dialogue throughout the process, with the active engagement, collaboration and participation of multiple constituents. Today, it is important to recognize that the planning and design process can be as unique as the students in class. We know not all students process information and learn the same way. The process for adapting or building a new facility should be viewed with the same perspective.

School Districts are Integral to the Design Planning Process

Our design process provides collaboration opportunities with educators in the creation of new learning environments to develop and reflect a changing 21st century pedagogy. This design process assists in understanding shifting paradigms while addressing the economics, facilities and resource considerations unique to each individual school district.

Planning for Learning Environments: Flexibility Versus Agility

A model we stress in working with our clients is the concept of flexibility versus agility and how to integrate both through planning.

Flexibility permits multiple uses of a space over an extended period of time. In the short term, one room can function as a cafeteria by day and a general meeting room in the evening. Another room may be planned as a multi-purpose room with generous square footage and water supply. Because the initial design was flexible, as the school’s needs evolve, the existing room can transition to a science classroom, with pre-planned square footage and utilities infrastructure in place. We should not plan for the subject matter only; together we should plan for the future needs of the school district.

Agility is the power of moving quickly and easily. “Designing” the ability for teachers to rapidly reconfigure spaces between large group activities and arrangements for small group work can support and reinforce diversified learning opportunities. Moveable classroom walls, extendable counters that provide additional work surface and easily reconfigured furniture are key to minimizing the waste of valuable learning time.

Planning for the Library: the Library is Not Dead!

The library has always been the heart of most schools. However, in recent years, libraries are thought to be a book repository. Libraries today are once again acting as the catalyst for accessing information, communication and acquiring knowledge from various media resources. Planned library spaces need to support multiple learning modes — reflection, individual research, group study and collaborative work — in a media-rich environment. They should be planned with flexibility, storage and utilities in order to support the required technology. And finally, in today’s library where students pursue information literacy, learning is social.

Planning for Teachers: How Do We Use This Space?

When working with school districts and higher education institutions, planners and designers need to ensure environmental changes are embraced by the teachers and administrators who envision and use these new spaces. Specifically, if a project’s goal is to promote collaboration among teachers and reinforce project-based learning styles, will the environment alone be able to encourage this interaction?

Designers often encourage collaboration through the introduction of transparent materials and the removal of physical barriers to break down walls and create interaction opportunities. As designers, we need to reflect on the collaborative possibilities of this environment. Can the environment help foster and develop small, integrated learning communities which reach across departmental divides?

Designers also need to ask tough questions of administrators and district leaders. Are they willing to support teachers as they redevelop their teaching delivery methods in new spaces? The design of new spaces requires the involvement of both teachers and administrators. They must feel empowered to support and create change in the environment. If they do not, capital will be spent on new spaces that continue to function as they have in the past. A building is a tool and can only be as successful as the individuals engaged in exploiting its potential.

Today, we are designing for a new generation of learners. Children and young adults need environments that support various learning styles, the acquisition of information in multiple forms and educators that understand how to teach in this new environment. We need to structure environments that foster a student’s intellectual growth and inquiry. As designers, we work in partnership with educators to help students realize their future as global citizens and as lifelong learners.

Carisima A. Koenig, AIA, LEED AP, focuses on higher education environments within Cannon Design’s education practice, while Kimberly A. Williams, Assoc. AIA, specializes in the design and implementation of the Pre-K to 12th grade learning environments. These methodologies represent a strategic balance that seeks to understand the spatial requirements necessary for growth and discovery in the Pre-K to post-secondary educational continuum.
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