9 Billion Schools: One School’s Journey – Educational Design Trends

By Dick Thomas

It’s no secret that education is changing. Over the past few years, I’ve seen new trends influence a variety of different areas of education, including facility design. How spaces are designed can have a significant impact on teaching methods and learning.

Dayton STEM students study in flexible school spaces including private areas, group spaces and classrooms.jpg

As architects specializing in education, my colleague Jeff Parker and I see how facility designs are changing in response to broader shifts in education every day. And we’re not just witnessing a change, we’re helping to lead the evolution. An essential part of designing for learning is to interpret trends, data and new methodologies and apply them to the built environment. That’s why we spent time during our two-day futurecasting exercise with Mercy McAuley High School, a new school forming for the 2018-2019 school year, to present the latest design trends to the transition team.

  1. Student-centered design
    Facilities are following a broader trend in education toward student-centered learning and the growing interest in personalization. This facility trend sees classrooms and other spaces in educational facilities shifting to give students more control of their environment and their learning. While student-centered learning is a multifaceted approach to education, facility design can help create a student-centered environment.

    This is perhaps one of the most scalable facility trends for educators to embrace, too; it isn’t necessary to undergo a full renovation or a new build to take advantage. Student-centered design can be as simple as having more than one seating option, so students can choose where they are most comfortable. Or, it can be as complex as building out multiple spaces for different learning styles, such as quiet reading nooks, small group collaboration hubs or multi-functional gathering spaces. Why not encourage your students to redesign your existing classroom and see how their imaginations run wild?
  2. Flexible, adaptable, agile
    Flexible environments are increasingly popular in academic and corporate settings because they offer different classroom set-ups for different types of activities. An adaptable environment may be structured for collaborative group discussion one way, but can quickly shift to foster smaller breakout groups or private personal work. These different types of learning environments all exist in the same area so teachers—and students—can choose the set-up that best fits their needs at any given time.

    Newly designed schools often include these malleable classroom elements, but teachers can easily add flexibility in their classrooms today. For example, tables on castors or layered white boards on wall hooks can allow for dozens of reconfigurations that may differ from student to student, class to class.

    But flexibility is about more than what’s inside the classroom—it’s about the shape and structure of the room itself. Having differently designed rooms that serve different purposes means teachers aren’t staying in one “owned” classroom space. Instead, they’re using a variety of shared spaces for different activities.
  3. Technology-rich environments
    Today’s students are digital natives, and they’re used to incorporating technology into their daily activities. (Some parents and teachers may even argue technology isn’t just incorporated, it’s ubiquitous!) Schools are increasingly taking advantage of students’ savvy by encouraging the use of technology to enhance their learning experiences both in and out of the classroom. However, it’s not enough to just have technology in the classroom. It must be used in a way that truly enriches students’ learning experience and provides opportunities to work on researching and problem-solving skills. All this technology must absolutely be ready at a moment’s notice, which is why connectivity in the classroom continues to gain momentum. And the rising number of online programs allow students to complete coursework on their own, outside of the school’s campus.
  4. Learning everywhere
    Many schools are giving students the ability to learn in different areas—not just the classroom or the media center. Learning commons—dedicated indoor and outdoor gathering spaces designed to facilitate interaction, socialization, teamwork and transparency—are growing in popularity because they encourage students to take ownership of how they learn: it becomes theirs. Encouraging this level of student choice and stewardship is a huge factor impacting facility design.
  5. Energy efficiency
    As part of an architecture firm specializing in energy efficient design, I’m glad to see energy efficient facilities emerge as a trend in education. In schools, energy efficiency often presents in the form of daylighting—increasing natural light throughout the building. More natural light cuts down on electrical lighting and cooling needs and has been shown to enhance students’ well-being and ability to learn.

    Many schools are going further in their sustainability efforts by pursuing LEED certification and the WELL Building initiative. LEED certification requires schools to meet a variety of criteria to earn points that determine the LEED level. Sustainable measures like daylighting, reducing water use, and using renewable energy systems like solar panels all contribute to a building’s LEED certification. The WELL Building Standard is the premier standard for buildings, interior spaces and communities seeking to implement, validate and measure features that support and advance human health and wellness. 
  6. Buildings that teach
    More and more schools have started to incorporate opportunities for teaching and learning into the building design, making the facility itself as intrinsic to learning as the curriculum. Take a simple greenhouse, for example. The very nature of the space communicates to the student how the structure helps plants grow; students don’t just observe but actually participate in the planting, tending and harvesting. All the while, the greenhouse is itself a lesson on the tenacity and tenuousness of the circle of life.

    If building a greenhouse on school grounds isn’t a possibility, educators can consider a variety of other ways the building can teach its students. A tour of the cafeteria offers opportunities to learn about nutrition, food preparation and the science and sourcing behind meals. The boiler room or server room become opportunities to learn about the industrial revolution, electrical engineering or IT infrastructure. Even the building offers insight into architectural and design trends that were popular when the school was first constructed. (If you need a guest lecturer for this lesson, I’m available!)
  7. Security
    When Jeff and I, or any of our colleagues, work on an educational facility, a primary concern is always school security. Unfortunately, we live in a world where this is a very real concern. But it’s a balancing act—schools must be secure enough to keep students and staff safe, but open and transparent enough to create a positive learning environment. As our world continues to evolve, the use of clear sightlines, landscaping, camera systems, safety zones and more will play an increasingly important role in ensuring our children are safe at school. 
  8. Variety in scale
    As with flexible spaces, we’re seeing more variations in the scale of learning environments. Options range from large common spaces to small group-sized huddle rooms, all with different seating configurations, flexible furnishings, immersive technology and more. These differences in scale help facilitate either individualized or collaborative work, depending on student or curriculum needs. 
  9. STE(A)M
    STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has been a hot button topic for a while, with many schools refining curriculum—and in some cases, completely reorienting their missions—to adopt a greater focus on these topics. But now, many schools are adding art to create a STEAM focus. Schools that embrace STEM/STEAM can create environments catering to those academic concentrations with more labs and work spaces specifically fitted for hands-on, real world projects. 
  10. Design-thinking environments
    Design thinking is a specific problem-solving process that has gained popularity in a variety of industries, including education. For students, the emphasis on design thinking builds 21st-century skills like problem solving and creativity that help students succeed in the workforce as well as the classroom.

    The broader shift to design thinking in education has pushed facilities to develop spaces, like makerspaces, that foster creativity, problem solving, and problem-based learning. Teachers can implement this in their classrooms by allowing students to tackle a problem using the design thinking process. Edutopia provides a step-by-step guide for teachers to implement design thinking projects in the classroom.
  11. Outdoor environments
    Many schools are embracing the outdoors as a teaching environment. Outdoor learning takes advantage of nature to enhance curriculum, or to simply allow students to take advantage of being connected to nature. For example, lessons don’t have to be catered to the outdoors to be taught in an outdoor environment—traditional curriculum can be taught just as well in an outdoor setting as it can indoors. Like so many other trends, creating outdoor environments links back to student choice and giving students the ability to work wherever best fits their needs and desires.

These trends contribute to positive learning environments and support student choice and curricular flexibility. Based on larger educational shifts towards personalized instruction, adaptability and more, we believe these facility trends will continue to be important for years to come, making them a worthwhile investment for academic institutions.

Our overview of facility design trends concluded the series of short break-out sessions we scheduled during the futurecasting exercise. By this point in the day, our participants had heard from experts in a range of industries providing data and insights into student and teacher experiences, the speed of technological and business evolution, economic trends impacting the communities Mother of Mercy and McAuley high schools serve, and shifting educational models.

It likely left our participants wondering, “Now what?”

It was at this point in the futurecasting that we started to think about how all of these trends would impact the young women who will attend Mercy McAuley 10 years from now. What would she look like? What would she learn? How would the school help her grow into a whole person? Stay tuned… because that’s what I’ll cover in my next 9 Billion Schools: One School’s Journey post.