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The average age of the American school building is 50 years. “Schools are one building type that we’re all familiar with because we’ve all been to school,” says Prakash Nair, president and founding partner of Fielding Nair Architects, specialists in learning space design.
Schools followed the “sage on the stage” model — that is, a classroom layout with a central platform where the teacher stands, and chairs that face it. It’s simple enough, and it worked well enough.
The challenge now, according to Nair, is to imagine “what a school could be, as opposed to what it has always been.”
According to teacher and former interior designer Erin Klein, space planners often “miss incorporating the students’ ideas and opinions.”
It’s not the architect’s fault. “One of the first things architects and designers do is they have to bid for jobs that they’re interested in or clients come to them. Either way, they’re consulting with the client. However, that doesn’t happen in education,” Klein says.
She further explains how architects and designers consult with administrative teams instead of students and teachers. The result is consistent with Nair’s concern: Architects end up designing what they think classroom design traditionally looks like, missing the mark entirely.
To maximize learning potential, Lennie Scott-Webber, former head of the Department of Interior Design & Fashion at Radford University, says we should create a space that can become the catalyst for change.
“When you open the door to a space, does it give you permission to act differently other than to be behaviorally conditioned to ‘sit and sit’ or ‘stand and deliver’? If the space doesn’t give permission to change, then it’s too easy to revert back to what we know,” Scott-Webber says.
In coworking spaces, “I” and “we” spaces are equally important: the latter for collaborative effort and socializing, the former for focused work. Diversity in seating arrangements also helps people break out of ruts and get fresh perspective.
In a learning space, these different zones and the flexible seating are no less important, and the reasons are not that different. In Pennsylvania State University, for example, the HUB-Robeson Center has a grand bleacher staircase ideal for encounters, interaction, and collaboration. Bradley University in Illinois provides a more unique take: collaborative study tables on landings attached to a steel staircase.
Students “are looking for open, fluid designs in the classroom. Instead of a static classroom filled with individual desks, designers should look for ways to create breakout spaces. Educators from Edutopia recommend arranging desks and tables to create nooks and designated spaces specified for different areas of study.”
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