How Schools Are Redesigning Their Space - ASCD
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September 1, 1993

How Schools Are Redesigning Their Space

Reflecting new visions of learning, educators and architects are creating “three-dimensional textbooks” that use the learning environment as a teaching tool.

Instructional Strategies

Children work in a solar greenhouse, graphing plant growth, classifying and comparing types of plants, and harvesting food and flowers. They learn about physics from the structure of the building, and they investigate the visible electrical-mechanical system to learn about input and output systems similar to the arteries and veins in their bodies. The problems they study in this “classroom” are real-world efforts, not bits of abstract work. Rather than completing worksheets, students participate in the concrete experiences that underlie mathematics, engineering, science, and social studies.

This greenhouse is one example of the indoor and outdoor learning environments that architect George Vlastos and I have been planning and designing for 20 years. We have come to think of educational architecture as a “three-dimensional textbook,” a learning environment that is a functional art form, a place of beauty, and a motivational center for learning. We use the architecture of the school classroom, museum exhibits, and the landscape to demonstrate how the natural and built environments reveal the ideas, laws, and principles that we are trying to teach children from textbooks.

We believe that architectural settings can stimulate or subdue learning, aid creativity or slow mental perception. School restructuring efforts have not, however, addressed the physical learning environment as a support system for education. While trying to improve the quality of education with new curriculums, technologies, and strategies, educators and policymakers must not forget the structures and spaces where our children go to school.

Rethinking School Architecture

The current revolution in education demands that we rethink the architecture that houses our children. To accommodate new teaching styles such as interdisciplinary and team teaching, schools need updated classrooms. They need computer labs, outdoor ecological landscapes, spaces for art, teaching museums, and furniture systems and designs to meet the needs of students with disabilities. New environments are also needed to foster lifelong learning, preschool through old age.

Yet 50 percent of U.S. school buildings were constructed cheaply and rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, built as if architects used cookie cutters to create classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias. Many schools need major repairs, contain environmental hazards, or exceed their planned capacity. The playground, perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate in the neighborhood, has been forgotten, left a barren patch of ground.

Because architecture can facilitate the transmission of cultural values, we need to look at what our present school buildings are saying to our children. We expect schools to prepare children for living in a democratic society, yet we provide a learning environment that resembles a police state—hard, overly durable architecture, giant chain-link fences, locked gates, guards, and even guard dogs.

An architect who had been designing prisons in a large city recently asked a colleague to examine a few of his school designs. There was a distinct similarity. Such architecture fails to encourage the sense of ownership, participation, or responsibility required for a democracy. Students are not prisoners who need surveillance, but children who need freedom to grow. What kinds of learning environments will support the education our children need?

New discoveries document that children learn best in stimulating and varied physical environments (Taylor and Vlastos 1983). Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences demonstrates that children need learning environments that facilitate a wide variety of access to knowledge and its application, and Gardner recommends that schools be designed as museums to accommodate the diversity of learning styles (Gardner 1983).

Science and children's museums are our most successful contemporary learning environments. Geared to multisensory and interactive learning, they house enticing realia with appropriate autotelic exhibits and cases. Schools, too, could provide similar spaces. For example, science departments, instead of storing equipment and specimens in closets, could display these learning tools as part of a school or hallway science museum.

The architectural world surrounding us has wondrous messages. By being cognizant of the designed or natural world, educators can turn “things” into “thoughts” for children. Many schools complain that they cannot afford the manipulatives or materials to better teach mathematics and science, but even the school environment—the buildings, the trees, the dirt, and the grass—can become convenient teaching tools for innovative educators.

Architects who are alert to educational goals and the myriad range of design possibilities can help to marry the world of education with the world of architecture when designing new schools. Using ideas such as Gardner's multiple intelligences can make the learning environment an active—not passive—set of spaces. In this way, school facilities become a value-driven design.

Architectural Programming

One of the problems in building or renovating schools to reflect the new theories in education is that planners rarely consult the users of the space: the students, the teachers, the parents, and the community. To ensure effective communication among all who will eventually use a new or renovated school, we have developed a planning process called architectural programming. Before beginning the architectural design phase, educators, planners, students, and community members can systematically discuss and then transform their mission and objectives into activity settings. The process enables the planners to identify program elements (not just square footage and dimensions) as educational specifications, correlate them with academic content in a “Program for Design,” and incorporate the program into the final design for the school building and site.

  1. Establish goals by examining curriculum and the developmental needs of the target population. (Make sure users are included on the design team.)

  2. Collect and analyze all facts, including climate, geography, community priorities, and all information from Step 1.

  3. Determine how “things can be translated into thoughts”—that is, how goals for the learners can be translated into architecture so the resulting environment is a true learning environment.

  4. Test the concepts—will they work? Sketch them out. What learning implications do they have? How do they reflect the goals?

  5. Ask more questions. What other needs does the client have? Is anything indispensable? What creative new ideas will support the goals and concepts? What innovative space concepts are available to meet the goals?

  6. Define and solve the problems with design alternatives (Pena 1987).

Redesigning a Head Start Classroom

Recently we used architectural programming with Head Start teachers in New Mexico to design the “Head Start Classroom of the Future” (Taylor et al. 1989–92). We analyzed 14 typical early childhood learning zones and their relationships to one another, to teaching concepts, and to learning processes. From this analysis, we devised a classroom that opens, closes up, and moves around, providing a way for teachers and children to set up a particular learning environment anywhere.

The new system includes several modular interdisciplinary pavilions: a design studio for drawing and painting; a spatial relationship environment for construction, movement, music, drama, and cognitive skill development; a garden; a portable cooking center; a media center with computer and audiovisual instruments; a “nest”—a soft, flexible environment with subdued color, texture, and sound, for listening and role-playing; a showcase environment for drawing, creative dramatics, and learning about light, color, reflection, and refraction; and a trash management center for developing ecological understanding. The flexibility of the environments provides an important tool for interdisciplinary teaching and for facilitating self-selection among the users.

Designing for Cultural Diversity

In designing our Head Start classroom, we discovered that different cultures have different spacial needs. For example, the Native American teachers in our group preferred rounded forms over rectilinear rooms. As we examined how to better use the corners of rooms, which often hold only unused junk, these teachers wanted to store toys and manipulatives in the corners, thereby implying a rounded form in the center of the classroom. For them, round forms add symbolic value to the space. The centers of their pueblos take on a synthesizing and emanation function from which all things flow and to which all things return. Circular forms, pathways, open and closed space, and the use of the center of the classroom made sense, perhaps for all early or elementary classrooms.

Our experience was echoed at the Pine Hill School on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, the nation's first self-determined Native American School. There, architects assessed group preferences for fireplaces, roof lines, colors, and other architectural elements (Albuquerque Journal 1980). In general, the Navajos preferred polygonal or round shapes to rectangular shapes, which they associated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. They chose hipped over gabled roofs because they identified flat roofs with the Pueblo style. They emphatically stated that the buildings should not be connected because they wanted their children to experience nature, hot or cold. Contact with nature is a most important educational element for the Navajo.

This suggests that future classroom design, for this population and all peoples, should utilize space in a more symbolic way, congruent with the value system prized by a culture. Classrooms could take on a deep significance rather than being passive empty space. Hence, in designing learning environments with diverse cultural groups, knowing how they symbolically perceive the environment and the things in it is important for making the appropriate inclusions or eliminations.

A Curriculum for Architecture

As an adjunct to our work in learning environment design, George Vlastos and I created Architecture and Children, a curriculum and staff development program to teach architecture and design principles as well as drawing, model building, history, science, and math. The program also seeks to empower teachers and children to communicate with architects so they can help design the learning environments of the future.

In several instances this visual literacy program has spawned some excellent programs by teachers and children, who, given the tools for creative problem solving, have made valuable input to new or retrofitted school and playground design.

By using architectural programming, middle school students at Riverside School in Spokane, Washington, saved their school $1,200 and obtained the playground they wanted. They first investigated the site and the adult choice of playground equipment, discovering that the intended premanufactured playground equipment was not developmentally appropriate for their needs. They then created a “landscape design for learning” that called for no equipment, and they presented their ideas for the site to their principal. These students succeeded in influencing sensible decisions about the site, its age-appropriate function, and its future. They gained a sense of ownership over their environment, worked to improve it, and served their community—all as part of their everyday education.

A New School for Trout Lake

Architectural programming also played a significant role in the creation of a new school in Trout Lake, Washington. The community had defeated bond issues for a new school building for six years. Then the faculty of 15 and the student body of 150 K–12 students, using Architecture and Children, spent the year collecting data and writing about and drawing architectural concepts. Students in 3rd to 5th grade executed an environmental impact study of their playground to see whether it was suitable for use when the old school facilities were remodeled. They discovered that old septic tanks and drainage fields were producing “black water” in the spring and seepage from the drain fields. They then built models to depict their ideas for a new school.

The citizens of the area also met to discuss their preferences and, at the meeting, they viewed an exhibition of the children's architectural work. Prompted by the student messages that went home to families, they seemed more aware of the need for a new structure. Community members vehemently stated they didn't want just another school, but rather an intergenerational community center. One month later, the bond issue passed. Of special note is the level of indebtedness to which this small community committed itself—$4.83 per $100 of property assessment.

Now all parties look forward to an intergenerational community center, not just another cookie cutter school. Their rural library will be a state-of-the-art system available for community use and connected by the latest technology to data banks around the state, the nation, and the world. The new cooking technology space will not only help children understand the benefits of good nutrition but will provide a space for community gourmet cooking classes. And as in any rural area, the gym will be an important gathering place. The superintendent hopes that rural music festivals will be as important as the sports events.

As the planning moves forward, the students have stayed involved. High school students are working with the U.S. Forest Service on an environmental impact study on the chosen site, and students will collaborate with the Soil Conservation Bureau to replant a diverted streambed. The architect will show students how to use computer-assisted design as he prepares the working drawings, and he will make his design disks available for community review of his progress. Students will also participate in landscaping and construction of play areas, observatories, and nature walks.

Besides learning about design and architecture, the students learned about the politics of pushing an idea. Their work helped to pull their community together, and the project gave the students in the district a sense of ownership in a real-life project to solve a community problem.

Restructuring in Stockton

Another example of how community involvement can create a new type of learning environment is taking place in the Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, California. In recent years, the number of children from diverse cultural groups, including Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Hispanic, has increased in the district; 27 different languages are now spoken in district schools. To help meet the needs of these new students, a developer gave the district 40 acres on which to build a new high school.

Because the Lincoln School District believes their schools should be student-driven, the district curriculum coordinator, with help from architects and a consultant team, facilitated a series of think tanks with students, community members, and staff to conceptualize what the new school would be. As design consultants on the projects, we walked the empty site with the students who will learn there—talking, imagining, and sharing ideas and feelings. We built models with them, and we drove the students around Stockton on the school bus, learning what spaces they preferred.

This unique joint venture between developer and school district has picked up additional momentum because it coincides with several other restructuring efforts in the district. The district is striving for a more holistic and integrated curriculum, designed for many learning styles. District officials listened and heard students saying that schools needed to be more personal, learning needed to be more real, and students needed to participate in developing options so they feel a sense of belonging in the micro- and macrocommunity (MacKenzie 1992).

The participatory process of designing the new school has been a powerful learning experience, and the new high school will not be typical. It will be a community learning center that supplements already existing offerings in the district and the community. Students have inventoried community resources to assess the potential for real-life learning and work experiences. Physical resources will also be inventoried and become part of the environmental three-dimensional textbook. These resources include city planning, landscape and architectural design, and city transportation and communication networks. In addition, a working agricultural irrigation unit will be installed on the 40 acres.

Though not completed, the Lincoln project points the way for student participation in planning learning environments. In Stockton, the architectural programming process is no longer the sole domain of the school board or the administration; collaborative planning is everybody's business.

Schools are workplaces for children and teachers—the physical learning environments that support education. If we are to achieve the new visions of education, we must remodel current classrooms, design and build new schools and outdoor landscape laboratories, and rethink what “school” means in light of the changes we'd like to see. Perhaps schools won't look like schools, and classrooms won't look like classrooms. Perhaps there will be no classrooms. Perhaps we will be using the total community as a learning environment. As we begin building the schools we need for the 21st century, let's produce optimal—not minimal—learning environments, ones that act as teaching tools.

School Architecture That Encourages Learning

In schools that are three-dimensional textbooks, students move through educational spaces, using them for different reasons and retrieving their own information. Learning goes beyond the building. The landscape design and the community become part of the total learning environment. Here are some features of the school itself.

  • Hallways are vertical and horizontal learning surfaces with graphics, displays for student artwork, or informational mini-museum exhibits.

  • Drop-down furniture, on block and tackle pulley systems, uses the ceiling as a storage system.

  • Flexible, movable, and changeable furniture has multiple uses.

  • Horizontal and vertical work surfaces are designed for individual or group work.

  • Lighting and windows illustrate lessons about the science of light, changing angles of the sun, seasons, and solstices.

  • Schools have places for growing plants.

  • Partitions are light and movable to allow for private places.

  • Partially exposed mechanical and structural systems allow children to discover the inner workings of architecture and how building systems relate to body systems.

  • Teachers have space for dialogue and planning, with a professional library close to the work area.

  • Benches provide space for student small-group interaction.

  • Systems are simple, designed to be operated and maintained as much as possible by the users.

  • Courtyard and commons are used for botany.

  • Atriums have trees and plants that are cared for and studied by students.

  • Sundials illustrate math, science, and astronomy principles.

  • Child care centers become places for students to learn parenting skills.

  • Rock formations provide outdoor laboratories for geology and earth sciences.

  • Water is incorporated for use by botany and science.

  • Schools have museums of history, art, and science, with students as curators.

—Anne Taylor


Albuquerque Journal. (June 4, 1980).

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

MacKenzie, T. (1992). “The Lincoln Plan.” Unpublished manuscript, Lincoln Unified School District, Stockton, Calif.

Pena, W. (1987). The Ecology of the Learning Environment. Columbus, Ohio: Council for Educational Facilities Planning International.

Taylor, A., and G. Vlastos. (1983). School Zone: Learning Environments for Children. 2d ed. Albuquerque, N. Mex.: School Zone, Inc.

Taylor A., G. Vlastos, B. Wise, and J. Wise. (1989–92). Head Start Classroom of the Future. Preliminary Reports to Health and Human Services. Albuquerque, N. Mex.: University of New Mexico.

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