New School Design to Support Today’s Learners

It’s not that often that a smaller city gets to build a new school so when the Superintendent put out a call for people interested in providing input for the design of it I leapt at the opportunity. The district that I work in will be building a new school that will serve 600 students from K to grade six. I had no idea what to expect as I entered the meeting room along with approximately 20 other educators and professionals including:  teachers, central office staff, school administrators and architects. Being the only administrator from a high school I was a little uncertain at first if I was in  a position to offer much in the conversations. What I soon discovered, however, is  that regardless of grade level, good philosophical and pedagogical ideas in education transcend age and grade levels. To be certain there are many differences between a high school and an elementary school, but the “big” ideas are aligned regardless of whether you are talking elementary or high school.

The process began with our Ministerial Order on learning. In groups we were asked to pull out pieces that resonated with us when deciding how a new school could  support the Order. It quickly became clear that student centered, flexible, inquiry based opportunities were a priority. A building that supported technology necessary. We also noted the movement towards a greater emphasis on competencies and less on content and meeting the needs of a variety learning styles.

From there we were asked to create a visual metaphor representing what the school would look like. We were asked, what would teachers or community members see when they came into the building that support our beliefs on what learning looks like ? The commonality with all the groups was not unnoticed. Themes of collaborative, flexible and fluid learning environments with the ability for students to pursue their interests and inquiry were prominent. A school that is welcoming and supports 21st century learning skills emphasized.

An architect team then gave a presentation that included the history of schools. They educated us on how the structure of schools have evolved and in some ways impeded research proven ways to enhance learning. The schools that once relied on tall windows that opened along with high ceilings for natural light and fresh air circulation have been modified and distorted as society felt the need to control the environment. The team also shared the policies and guidelines they are responsible for, but also how flexible space can be. The total square footage is locked, but how it is used can be manipulated.

Armed with information and beliefs we were then able to start listing physical suggestions to the building. Ideas such as glassed-in breakout rooms so that students could be supervised while they work in small groups or independently, garage door type doors in the gym that could be opened so the space could spill out into a large welcoming entryway foyer, outside walls constructed so that they could help with outdoor classroom space, a learning commons that is a focal point and easily accessible, natural lighting, spaces to create, inquire and explore, flexible walls….I think our group probably came up with over fifty suggestions. Architects sat at each table and continuously wrote notes, asked questions for clarifications, offered suggestions and informed us of constraints.

Five hours went by very quickly. We still have much work to do, but what inspired and gratified me as I left the first meeting was how I truly felt a part of the process and how everyone at the table was putting the best interest of the child into every consideration.

I  welcome any comments or ideas from others who have experienced or have ideas on how they feel a new school environment should support student learning.


  1. J said:

    Be careful of what you construct the outside walls out of, keep in mind that kids will kick balls against them. If the wrong material is used it will be unbearably loud for anyone inside during recess to think.

    June 19, 2015
    • Thanks J, Thank makes me wonder that if properly constructed as you suggested the walls could also be used in some way either for play or some type of learning.

      June 20, 2015
  2. Todd,

    Thank you for sharing this story. I look learning more about how this school becomes a reality.

    I am, however, wondering about one thing… Any talk about including students in the design process?

    I’ve recently had the opportunity to work with students who provided input into the design and construction of learning environments. Their ideas were revealing… and insightful, that is, once they knew their contributions were taken seriously.

    Thank you!

    June 20, 2015
    • Great question and insight Ryan. One of my professional goals is increased student voice and choice so it is something I communicated. Thanks

      June 20, 2015
  3. Chris Akin said:

    Hi Todd

    We are “off the ground” so to speak, with our Master Campus Development Plan here at The American School of Lima, Peru, and phase 1 includes a new student “Commons” and a re-do of our Primary building. I would be very interested to skype with you to share some of what we have learned and hear more from your end. If you have time, please drop me a line and we’ll “meet” through Skype:

    Best to you …


    June 20, 2015
    • Thanks Chris, I’m definitely up for that. I’ll be in touch.

      June 20, 2015
  4. What an exciting opportunity! While aligning the design to theoretical and pedagogical considerations is awesome, I’d also suggest aligning design considerations to research that stresses the importance of natural light, fresh air, greenery, colors, and acoustics on learning.

    June 21, 2015
  5. Donna said:

    Great idea. Thanks for sharing this

    June 23, 2015

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