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Why School Architects Need to Understand How Students Learn

November 4th, 2015 by

A strong correlation exists between the design of a facility and the achievement of the students who attend school there. Research clearly demonstrates the accuracy of this intuitive truth and shows that educational planners need to take every opportunity to enhance teaching and learning through purposeful design of school buildings and grounds. – Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI)

This statement from the CEFPI Guide for Educational Facility Planning emphasizes that as designers, we need to understand how the elements of the school buildings we design will affect student achievement.

The relationship between school facilities and student achievement goes beyond space layout. It includes measurable attributes, such as indoor air quality, ventilation, thermal comfort, lighting and acoustics; and more subjective attributes like building age, quality, aesthetics, and school and class size.  Acknowledging these factors is important in the design of suitable learning environments. But first we need to understand more about how students learn.

How do students learn?
Education scholar Carol Ann Tomlinson, known for her innovative work in differentiated teaching techniques, says student learning varies in at least three major ways: (1) students’ readiness to work with a particular idea, concept, or skill, (2) the topics they find interesting, and (3) learning profile — i.e., each student’s gender, culture, prior experiences, multiple intelligence preferences, and learning style.

Know Your Learning Style
As architects, it’s important to consider learning styles and individual differences when designing schools for the 21st century. Addressing the broader needs for learning style and individual differences in the design phase influences a teacher’s ability to make a variety of content available to students and to engage them in processes and activities that foster a deep understanding and help each one succeed.  Classrooms and support spaces that are thoughtfully designed to allow the students and teachers to function in a range of ways, from self-directed study and one-on-one tutoring to small or large group collaboration and even student led seminars.

Responsive approach to designing learning spaces
Providing the physical space to accommodate a variety of learning styles is one thing, but paying attention to the nuances of how spaces interconnect and are used takes school design to a higher, much needed level. A few “user related” factors to consider include:

Our challenge
The amount of research that links learning styles with student motivation and performance is compelling and should motivate designers to challenge long established facility space programs, when possible, and to promote the design of more suitable learning environments.

Our Challenge
Viewing students as individuals rather than lumping them into large “mass” groupings really helps to isolate the more intimate aspects of the design of buildings. It places the focus on the user in a way that creates an almost vicarious relationship with that individual.

Cultivating heightened awareness about the range of ways students learn generates a liberating, creative energy to design stimulating environments that give students what they need to succeed. Here, I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which posits that learning progresses as various levels of needs are met, from basic needs like food, shelter, and safety to growth-oriented needs like acceptance, recognition, and self-confidence.

929 N Wolfe
With Maslow in mind, school facilities need to go beyond the fundamental physiological and safety needs to provide spaces that foster socialization, esteem, and self-actualization in students. Creating spaces of this nature is a heavy responsibility, but it can happen when we come to understand schools as user-focused spaces for individuals.

To learn more about our approach to school, read a blog post by my colleague Jennifer Lyon, “Achieving Successful Collaborative Learning Spaces in Today’s Schools.”