The changing pace and space of education

Education is undergoing a revolution.

For centuries, the way we taught students didn’t change much. From the ancient Greeks to the 1940s, education meant moving information from teacher to student. Pupils would sit either in a circle or in rows facing the teacher and were expected to absorb the information the teacher presented.

In today’s world, however, information is available at our fingertips. Students can now access information directly, without the teacher as a go-between—which means students and teachers can spend their time learning how to apply information, rather than just gathering it.

The skills needed for a successful career are changing as well. New entrants into the work force need to be able to analyze information and use it to create new ideas. To prepare today’s kids for the work force, more and more schools are encouraging students to find answers to questions on their own, with guidance from their teachers. This type of project-based or inquiry-based education is becoming a popular (and often preferred) method of instruction more and more.

Outdated buildings
Unfortunately, most schools are not designed for this type of learning, including most of the more than 130,000 K-12 public schools in the U.S. In 2017, EdWeek reported that the average age of a public school building in the United States was 44 years, with an average of 12 years since the last renovation.

Those numbers mean that children are learning in buildings that were designed for the old “sage on the stage” learning style. Too many classrooms are built for children to simply sit at a desk and listen to a teacher. In today’s educational environment, however, those students are better served by environments that allow them to move and grow.

Environment matters
Research backs up the need for appropriate educational spaces. A 2012 study of schoolchildren in the U.K. found that the building environment can affect learning positively or negatively by as much as 25%. That same study found a child’s learning environment was 73% correlated with assessment score changes. Where education happens matters.

Architect Peter Barnett, who led the study, said the findings are significant:

This is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools. The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined.

Changing education methods call for a change in the way we build schools. For project-based learning, students require spaces where they can collaborate, build or experiment. A traditional school with static classrooms that act as the sole space dedicated to learning is no longer the most effective. We need to focus more on creating immersive, authentic and relevant experiences for students to explore while they’re within our school walls.

Authors Eric Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray elaborate in their book, “Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools”:

Schools and classrooms must transform from an industrial era model to one that is learner-centered, is personalized, and leverages the power of technology.

Flexible learning spaces
One option for this transformation is a school where teachers don’t stay in one classroom but instead choose the learning space that best works for the current day’s focus. These schools will have classrooms that work for individual learning, lab experiments, collaboration and, yes, even lecturing. Within those classrooms, students may be able to choose the type of seating that works best for them—or even whether they want to sit or stand.

Another option for creating these new spaces is an academy-based learning center. Students may be grouped by academic interest into a learning cohort that focuses on a particular subject. These academy environments allow for all types of learning – individual and collaborative – and may include maker-space type areas to encourage hands-on learning.

At Olathe West High School in Olathe, Kansas, Hollis + Miller designed two academy spaces to suit the needs of the Public Safety and Green Tech academies. Garage doors that open to the outside allow the Green Tech Academy to bring the outdoors inside and easily access their student-planted gardens and solar-powered picnic tables (complete with plugs for students’ electronic devices). Those garage doors in the Public Safety Academy allow space for vehicles as well as provide easy access to the academy’s fire truck.

Time for change
To prepare children for the jobs of the future, schools will not only need to change the way they approach learning but also update their buildings to create the appropriate spaces for the needs of today’s students. Whether it’s academy-style learning or creating flexible learning spaces, our schools’ designs must encourage student-led learning so today’s children can learn the skills they need to be tomorrow’s leaders.

Megan Barnes is an associate and client leader at Hollis + Miller Architects, an integrated architecture firm that designs the future of learning environments, including public and private K-12 and higher education. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @HollisandMiller.

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