Smart Spaces: Designing to Help Students Learn

by Darren L. James, AIARemember the magic of learning the alphabet with your mom or dad when they sat down with you on the floor of your childhood home? Or learning the colors for the first time when red, blue and green came became “real” things? Imagine the joy of riding in the backseat of your grandparents’ car and seeing the elephant in the clouds on the way to the zoo or feeling the warmth of the sun after a brisk fall day when you picked your first fallen leaf for the autumn craft collage. Do you recall the excitement of your first trip to a museum? Close your eyes and think back to the days of unbridled imagination and promise and the intrinsic joy of learning new things. Remember how they opened doors to the simple joy of learning something new? As you trace the thoughts back through your memories, remember the smiles and excitement of your parents and peers when a new task or skill was mastered? Educational environments should emulate and celebrate the joy of learning as well as prepare students for a world of possibilities. In designing schools, the joy of discovery can be replicated to provide learning spaces that encourage our children and support our educators. Metrics, scores, tests and accountability are extremely important but should not be a deterrent to schools that excite and motivate the next generation. Unstructured non-traditional learning is just as important as structured instruction. Remember the lessons learned from playing with your friends on the playground or some imaginary fort in the woods or during a pick-up soccer or football game. You learned how to work together for a common purpose by collaborating in a team-based environment. The value of these group settings was enhanced through the time you spent alone imagining and dreaming, reading and watching, absorbing and learning. CREATING THE ENVIRONMENT Schools, from pre-kindergarten to high school, can deliver these educational spaces in a structured setting, allowing the educators to utilize more of the campus for instruction--both directed and self-directed. Classrooms, media centers/libraries, multipurpose auditoriums, labs and art studios form the framework for directed instruction. Corridors, courtyards, study alcoves, reading spaces, interactive zones, gymnasiums, dining halls and lobbies/atriums provide opportunities for learning outside of traditional classrooms. The reality is that students learn from all stimuli and mostly by example. They listen, observe and engage in discussion with teachers, principals and their peers. As PK-12 designers, it is incumbent on us to continue to seek ways to provide what we at KAI call Smart Spaces. Our definition of Smart Spaces includes the classrooms and non-traditional spaces that typically were used by people and materials but were underutilized or never utilized for learning activities. In the space under the main stairs in the lobby of Wilmer Hutchins Elementary School (Dallas ISD0), the principal created a story zone, and, on the second floor, next to a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks downtown Dallas, the principal created a second story zone. The elevated lawn adjacent to the classroom wing at this school and the oval green space outside the media center at Larry G. Smith, across town in Mesquite are perfect examples of outdoor learning environments. Teachers enjoy the opportunity to conduct classes in these outside spaces. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile computing devices have been in the hands of our kids since the days they were born. The newest generation has grown up in a world with the ability to have a wealth of information at their fingertips. They haven’t known a world without cell phones and are getting to the point of not knowing a world without the ubiquitous tablets that are taking over the computing industry. At one time, the discussion centered on the Digital Divide, which succinctly meant that students were more comfortable and advanced with technology than the educators. Thankfully, newer teachers and continuing education programs have closed this gap between educator and student. The classrooms we design now have a wealth of technology that directly supports the curriculum. Data outlets, Wi-Fi, smart boards, projectors, cameras and cabling infrastructure are all in place to allow each classroom access to the internet and technology tools. Teachers and students have found amazing uses for technology and applications for presenting thoughts, ideas and lessons to their fellow classmates and/or students. For example, a lesson on a trip to Mars can be supplemented with pictures from the Mars Rover on NASA’s web link or may evolve into a discussion on tropical storms and hurricanes by watching radar from NOAA. Teachers also capture notes from today’s lesson and post them to a protected site allowing students to download notes for study sessions with their friends or help from parents around the dinner table. Textbooks are increasingly becoming digital downloads instead of hardback warehouse-intensive volumes. THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX The overarching theme is flexibility for instructional space. Classrooms are typically designed for a variety of activities and grade levels, with similar or same-size standards but with infinite configuration possibilities based on the desires and needs of each class or subject. As a designer of spaces, nothing is more satisfying than walking into an area where the kids are engaged and each classroom has taken on the personality of the teacher imparting new knowledge and instruction. The curriculum is consistent, but each structured and non-structured instructional space offers new room for discovery. Education is about dreams, hopes, and visions of the future. Parents instill their hopes and pour that into their children. Teachers passionately deliver lessons, building the parents’ and students’ visions for the future. Educational buildings are no longer drab warehouses of factory-based instruction, but flexible discovery-based environments tailored to the enrollment on each specific campus and evoking the excitement of learning within the students who lead us into a bold new future. This article, authored by Darren L. James, AIA, was featured in the December 2012 issue of The Network.