Hosanna House makerspace in Wilkinsburg / photo: Ben Filio

photo: Ben Filio

In learning space design, form follows function

This week, nearly 200 members of the Remake Learning network participated in a two-day Space Design Summit exploring the anatomy of modern learning spaces.

Joined by leading architects and designers from around the US, event attendees learned some facts and figures about how schools (and other places of learning) are designed and built, the principles of effective learning space design, and the connection between the school space and a school’s vision for learning.

The Space Design Summit was co-hosted by Remake Learning and Reimagine America’s Schools, an initiative of the National Design Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting cities and schools through change and transformation. The event kicked off Remake Learning’s Blueprint for Learning grant opportunity, offering grants of up to $50,000 to help schools, out-of-school time organizations, early childhood facilities, museums, libraries, and higher education institutions reimagine, redesign, and remake their learning spaces.

We sat down with Ron Bogle, founder and CEO of the National Design Alliance, and Kerry Leonard, Architectural Consultant for Reimagine America’s Schools, to share a few key takeaways from the event.

Remake Learning: Thanks for being here in Pittsburgh, we’re excited to have been able to create this opportunity for Remake Learning network members.

Ron Bogle: We’re glad to be here. We’re inspired by what we see happening in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. It’s exciting to be a part of this and we hope that we can help support even better outcomes than are already being achieved.

What is Reimagine America’s Schools and what are you working on?

RB: In November of 2018, voters across America approved more than $50 billion in funding for school buildings—renovating the existing stock and building new structures. That’s great news, it’s the most that’s been approved in decades. The bad news is that most of those new schools will be built for 1950 rather than 2050.

Reimagine America’s Schools is here to help build a new vision for what schools for the next generation ought to look like. There is a lot of stuff bubbling up in terms of new curriculum and technology, but the design of the education space is not keeping pace. Our hope is to drive a new vision for school design that supports these innovations in instruction.

Remake Learning: What’s that mean, to have the school space designed to support instruction?

Kerry Leonard: Many educators only know what they’ve seen in their careers and what they’ve seen are very traditional learning environments. There are a lot of great examples around the country of spaces that have been designed to support the kinds of learning that progressive educators are trying to bring to schools today. How do you build those flexible, adaptable spaces and how do you understand the impact of the environment on learning? It can be as simple as the room being too hot or lacking in views of the outdoors, to making sure that the space is designed for modularity with movable furniture and variable space size, to really complex things like building acoustics. These are all things that architects think about and design for, but very few schools ever have a chance to engage directly with architects, at least not at this depth.

Remake Learning: What are the characteristics of a school designed for modern learning?

RB: If the schools of the past had just one learning modality—students sitting in neat rows of desks listening to a teacher speak at the blackboard—today there might be 8 or 9 or 10 learning modalities going on in that same school building. Today’s schools need many different kinds of spaces to suit the many different kinds of learning taking place there: noisy space, quiet space, space for hands-on learning, space outfitted for STEM and STEAM learning.

The old saying still holds: “Form follows function.” As the function within the learning space changes, the form of that space should change too.

Remake Learning: Faced with this, what should educators be thinking about when they’re considering redesigning a learning space?

KL: If there are that many learning modalities happening in a particular learning space, whether that’s a single classroom or a school building, and the use of those modalities are likely to change over time, how can you design a space to best accommodate this state of constant change? That’s where the design process can help.
The design process allows an exploration of options to solve a need. You’ve got to make decisions about what you’re going to build or how you’re going to renovate, but schools are much more complex than counting up the number of classrooms. Using an intentional design process can help educators understand what learning activities will occur—the anticipated function of the space—and from there decide how the form of the space needs to be and adapt.

The creative problem is figuring out how to put those all together in a single school so a teacher or a student can engage in any particular kind of learning at any particular time. We’re trying to make something physically concrete, but flexible and adaptable to work for a variety of needs over time. How can that space adapt and respond next year, five year, or ten years from now?

Remake Learning: That’s exciting and inspiring, but does it means you’ve got to build a new school? That’s a huge endeavor and really far out of reach for a lot of communities.

KL: Most of the schools of 2050 are already built today. Adapting existing spaces and buildings is a bigger part of the work that has to be done than constructing new schools. We have buildings that are more than 100 years old in this country, and even older in Europe, that have been adapted to meet the needs of today and the future.

RB: There are over 15,000 schools in the US, so it’s not wise or sustainable to scrap them. But you can take a building designed for the 19th or 20th century and turn it into a 21st century school. We can also take a nontraditional building and repurpose it for learning. There are really creative communities finding other uses for community spaces, libraries, museums, even train stations.

Remake Learning: What’s a good example of a community doing that?

RB: Spokane, Washington passed one of the largest bond issues in the country, on a per pupil basis. They needed new buildings and this was the most economical and direct route. But then they began to engage in a whole series of design workshops, community engagement workshops, student workshops, culminating in a Reimagine America’s Schools summit where we helped them go from a tactical plan to a more visionary plan. It’s really one of the boldest things happening in an American city. It shows that transformation through design thinking really works in the real world, on the ground in a community.

Remake Learning: This week’s Space Design Summit kicks off the Blueprint for Learning grant opportunity. What’s one thing you hope people keep in mind as they approach this grant opportunity?

RB: Creating a space for learning is not about making a shopping list of 3D printers and fancy chairs. You need to start out with a vision of what you want the learning experience to be, then you design a space that will support that vision. If you skip that part of the process, you might end up with a nice collection of equipment that doesn’t really work in context.

KL: First, people need to gain an appreciation for the ways a well-designed physical space can enhance and enrich the learning for teachers, students, and communities. Then it’s about taking the time and energy necessary to solve to bring the voices of the end users into that process: teachers and students. Use the design process to really work at it, it doesn’t just happen. You might take a few steps forward, you might take a step or two back. But you need to see the process through if you’re going to be ready to build that project. And then when it is built, you’re not even done there—that’s just another first step. These grants should be considered a first step in a long process of continual improvement.

RB: We are trying to build a connection between learning and the space you’re learning in, that connection is not intuitive. So, the focus of the summit is to build that connection, and then to engage participants in some design thinking exercises that help make that connection real by asking them to think about how their space will support their educational program.

Remake Learning: What opportunities do you see unlocked by this approach to learning space design?

RB: Design is not something for the elites, it’s a practical, hands-on tool for maximizing opportunities and solving problems. We should be using every asset we have available to maximize opportunity for students. Building and space design is just another tool to use to support learning. If we can help more people start the space design conversation from the basis of learning, we’ll end up with more supportive environments for students.

KL: I think of a school building in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Most schools are providing the physiological and safety needs, many provide students a sense of belonging, some are helping students develop a sense of esteem, but very few are reaching that “self-actualization” notch in the hierarchy. That’s our aspiration. We’ve seen this work and we’ve seen its impact. There’s really no reason that every school and every community should benefit from good design.

RB: And educators in Pittsburgh have a tremendous opportunity. Pittsburgh has a very strong architectural community and design community. When you combine that with this truly remarkable network of educators you’ve built, and help them collaborate through the Blueprint for Learning process, we’re going to see even better outcomes than are already being achieved.