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October 20, 2022
ASCD Blog

How School Design Can Hinder Or Help Collaboration

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If your school culture lacks energy, think about reworking physical spaces to encourage "creative collisions."
LeadershipSchool Culture
How School Design Can Hinder Collaboration and “Creative Collisions”
Credit: Grand Picture / Shutterstock
Do you remember hearing about the medieval tales of King Arthur and his knights of the square table? Well, most likely that’s not how you remember the tale. That’s because, beyond being strong enough to extract a sword, Excalibur, from a stone, Arthur was wise enough to convene his team around a round table, one in which no knight sat in a prominent position. Even Arthur, the king, sat as one with his colleagues. It’s hard to argue with that logic—yet most of us work in schools that are architecturally designed to support silos.
Traditional school-design conventions also tend reinforce the notion of hierarchy: the principal’s office is usually bigger, nicer, and located in a dominant position within the building. Contrast the principal’s office with the staff lounge, mailroom, and staff announcement boards. I’ve been in many schools, and describing these spaces as “nondescript” would be generous. Principals need to consider how to make their work spaces—their office and the staff room—inviting. What can we do to make these spaces less hierarchical and more conducive to collegiality and creative collisions?
Writing in Forbes magazine, leadership expert Carolyn Kinsey Gorman underlines the detriment of silos to a team or organization: “Wherever it’s found, a silo mentality becomes synonymous with power struggles, lack of cooperation, and loss of productivity.” In this respect, it’s depressing to consider that the siloed structures in school interiors share some design elements with prisons: buildings with corridors that have rooms or cells on each side, with entry possible only through a single narrow door. This design works against collaboration and creativity. As a result, opportunities for teachers to brainstorm or share input and feedback are less likely to spontaneously happen.

The Ideal—Collegial—School Design

Contrast a typical school design with “The Ring” at Apple Park in Cupertino, California. Steve Jobs recognized the value of employee interaction, so he planned a huge circular building without corners to facilitate conversations among employees. While a fully circular building may not be feasible for schools, Jobs’ ideas can be applied in other ways. In The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle describes human interactions in workplaces as “collisions…serendipitous personal encounters” (p. 66). These collisions cultivate the collegiality and learning that the late Roland Barth described in his book, Improving Schools From Within.
Barth believed that the adults in a school must grow and learn like their students. Thus, his ideal school is “teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions” (p. 9). Barth was one of my heroes, so developing and supporting faculty collegiality and interaction became a major priority when I started my career as a principal. I knew that every teacher in my school would be a better teacher if they continually learned from their colleagues.
Collegiality can be, and should be, a tool for leadership growth, too. As Barth wrote, “perhaps even more than teachers, principals live in a world of isolation” (p. 83), and while that statement was written in 1991, conditions haven’t changed all that much.
In his book Nuance: Why Some Leaders Succeed and Others Fail, author and speaker Michael Fullan agrees: “The first characteristic that stands out is that nuanced leaders know in their bones that no progress will be made in the absence of learning from and with the group” (2018, p. 18). Personally, I benefited enormously by working with and learning from the teachers at my school.
But collegiality won’t happen without an awareness of physical space and intention.

The walls in the principal’s office should express a passion for student learning.

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How Interior Spaces Need to be Designed

First, common spaces should be attractive and provide an incentive for people to be in them. A goal should be for “common spaces” to be almost an oxymoron because we want these areas to be uncommonly inviting!
As a minimum, the coffee machine should offer drinks that don’t feel institutional. The staff lounge should not only be pleasant—filled with an abundance of educational materials, comfortable chairs, and décor and art that shout “the people who hang out here are valued”—it should entice faculty to want to be there.
Common areas should also be centrally located and easily accessible. As Gretchen Gavett wrote in a Harvard Business Review article, “Think Carefully About Where You Put the Office Bathroom,” Steve Jobs placed the restrooms, employee café, and mailboxes in the center of Apple Park, resulting in people having to physically interact and engage in conversations. Likewise, we placed all of my three-story school building’s copying machines in the first-floor teachers’ lounge. Periodically, teachers on the other floors would ask if a copier could be moved up. I declined these requests because I wanted creative collisions to take place in the lounge (which is also why both our soda machines were in the lounge).
Second, the principal’s office should feel friendly and inclusive, not intimidating. Go round: Research finds that “environmental cues can activate fundamental human needs”—the need to belong or the need to feel unique. Circular seating arrangements enhance our need to belong. They also prevent the hierarchy that can otherwise exist with angular tables.
Finally, the walls in the principal’s office should express a passion for student learning. Rather than being a self-congratulatory “hall of fame” that portrays your awards and picture, how about featuring a mini-museum of student work on the wall, regularly rotating it so many students get the chance to be featured? Similarly, photos of students performing and teachers teaching would send a powerful message to visitors about what you value. And, of course, there should be a jar with calorie-laden treats available to anyone and everyone.
The look and feel of the principal’s office should say, “Let’s have a creative collision. I want to learn with you.”
*Special thanks to Christner architect Dan Jay and Dean of the University of Missouri – St. Louis College of Education, Ann Taylor, for their generous brainstorming with me on this topic over breakfast.

The Principal as Chief Empathy Officer

A principal's skills, knowledge, and experience are important when it comes to leading schools. But principals also need empathy to be effective and drive continuous improvement. 

The Principal as Chief Empathy Officer

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

Learn More

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