Designing Educational Spaces to Inspire Divergent Thinking


Creativity is essential to modern leadership. Several decades ago, our economy was based on knowledge and skillset, but today, our economy is driven by ideas, innovation and creative thinking. 

As architects and designers, it is our job to create more thoughtful and dynamic spaces that nurture children’s innate curiosity and creativity, and equip teachers with the right environment to teach in a variety of ways.

Our education system has evolved along with the economy, and therefore, there is an emerging era of teaching methods that encourage divergent thinking and challenge traditional techniques that often stifle creativity.

In a study by George Land and Beth Jarman, a creative thinking test was administered to groups of five,10 and 15-year-olds, and the results were alarming. When students were asked to solve a problem in multiple ways, an impressive 98 percent of five-year-olds scored at the “genius” level. However, the 10-year-olds dropped to 32 percent and the 15-year-olds dropped to 10 percent. The study shows that divergent thinking, which is defined as a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many solutions, is being increasingly muted in students as they progress through our education system. Teachers are responding to this trend by embracing new methods that encourage collaboration, creativity and inventive problem solving, which better prepares students to be successful leaders in today’s innovation-driven economy.

As architects and designers, it is our job to create more thoughtful and dynamic spaces that nurture children’s innate curiosity and creativity, and equip teachers with the right environment to teach in a variety of ways. In adaptive reuse design projects, designers take the bones of an existing building and re-envision what could be. When applied to the design of schools, such efforts can demonstrate real world applications of divergent thinking to students; encouraging them to think not about what the world is but what it could be. We create these modern educational spaces by focusing on the following design qualities:

Primary and Secondary Spaces

Classrooms should include both smaller, quiet areas for reverie and free thinking, as well as larger areas that create opportunities for collaboration, brainstorming and leadership. These spaces should be scaled to the grade level of the students. For example, designing spaces that are smaller in scale with a sense of enclosure provides comfort to younger students, which frees up their ability to think creatively. It is our obligation to create a variety of spaces that support all types of learning at all levels.

Light and Connections to Nature

Whether it be stunning views through floor to ceiling windows or outdoor classrooms and courtyards, students should be exposed to nature more often throughout the school day. Author of the bestsellers “Last Child in the Woods” (2005) and “The Nature Principle” (2011), Richard Louv told National Geographic, “I’ve been arguing for a while that connection to nature should be thought of as a human right.” Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the loss of connection children increasingly feel with the natural world. Mounting research supports Louv’s claims, showing nature is a good antidote to depression, ADD, child obesity and the epidemic of inactivity. 

Movable Furniture and Writeable Walls

Moveable furniture can be reconfigured in multiple ways to host small or large groups. We also frequently incorporate various types of seating, including soft, textured and bouncy seating, which allows students to move naturally and enables their minds to openly ponder. Additionally, we look for opportunities to install writeable walls in classrooms. These walls encourage students to “color outside the lines” and promote interaction between students and teachers.

Places for Play

Because students spend nearly seven hours each day within a structured environment with an adult governing every move, they need opportunity for movement and natural learning, which is where play areas come in. It’s increasingly important to steer clear of the pre-prescribed play area designs. Instead, we recommend multipurpose play structures that let students decide how to play so there is not one “right way” to play on the equipment. This allows kids to flex their minds and invent interesting concepts.

Hospitality-Infused Dining

Cafeterias are also being reinvented. Lunch is supposed to be an enjoyable, social experience — a time to relax and refuel for the rest of the school day. Modern cafeterias are moving away from the hard, big box scale with long rows of utilitarian tables, and instead featuring smaller, circular tables to offer a more pleasant dining environment and enhanced interaction between students. Cafeterias are also incorporating more art murals, softer lighting and brighter paint colors to shed the old-school institutional feel.

Three schools have addressed many of the aforementioned design elements:

Bailey’s Upper Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia is a former five-story office building retrofitted into an elementary school. Within the classrooms, the cubby areas were broken out for teachers to create primary and secondary spaces for learning. Movable furniture and writeable walls were also installed to create a flexible learning environment that encourages students to think outside the box and yes, draw on the walls.

In the school’s common areas, there were opportunities to create “encounter space” – places for people to informally interact. Oversized steps were created to serve as soft seating for students to gather and for teachers to take advantage of teaching moments as they organically arise.

Because of the building’s small site — about three acres — and vertical nature, the existing ribbon windows allow students to view the surrounding outdoors as they ascend through the building. At the very top, students are given the opportunity to look out beyond the horizon line, encouraging them to wonder about the “what ifs” of life.

At Westgate Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, several extraordinary secondary spaces were created in academic wings tucked away within corridors, but also feature ample natural lighting and a connection to the exterior greenery. A few outdoor courtyards have been highly successful since the school opened and feature gardening areas — complete with a sundial for scientific exploration and a spectacular view for all new classrooms to bring the outdoors in.

Westgate also added a new administrative office, library, and an additional classroom wing. The school now includes proper solar orientation, high performance HVAC systems, day lighting, a white roof and outdoor learning spaces.

North Atlanta High School is another adaptive reuse project of note that  transformed the former IBM Corporate Campus into an 11-story school. The functional space needs of a high school are quite different from those of a corporate campus; however, the existing office tower was well suited to provide primary classroom, administration and food service space. The top eight floors contain four small learning communities that are each housed on two floors. Each learning community was designed with a large double-level public space that includes a dramatic, connecting staircase. These focal spaces create a place for students to connect, hang out and identify as their own space.

The high school also overlooks a scenic lake that offers students a moment of serenity while moving between classrooms. In addition, an assembly building was added — adjacent to the 11-story tower. The assembly building includes large, high-volume spaces with special acoustic needs and accommodates a 600-seat auditorium, a 150-seat black box theater, music rooms and a 2,100-seat gymnasium. A “Main Street” design approach was used to connect the two main buildings and parking facility.

In each of these projects, creative solutions were used to reimagine the traditional school. The most important goal is to create dynamic, multipurpose educational spaces that foster creativity, inspire divergent thinking and create the next generation of leaders. These creative approaches teach students by example as they see innovation come to life in their very own school. The greatest reward is listening to students speak with pride about their new classroom, fun furniture, artful cafeteria and other unique features that make them excited to learn.

Lauren Perry Ford joined Cooper Carry in 1999 and was named Associate Principal in 2017.  She has been practicing architecture for 23 years. She is versed in various project types including education, retail, mixed use, multi-family residential and master planning. Throughout her tenure at Cooper Carry, she has been instrumental in advancing sustainable design throughout the firm and now focuses her efforts on the design of high performance schools. She is responsible for guiding the Education Practice Group in our Washington Office where she endeavors to create inspiring learning environments for the students of the 21st century. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in architecture from the University of Virginia, and her Masters of Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of several organizations including the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), and the National Council of Architectural Registration Board (NCARB). She is a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP BD+C), and is a registered architect.

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