National Summit on School Design | November 6 – 8, 2015

The American Architectural Foundation (AAF) held the fourth National Summit on School Design in Chicago, Illinois, November 6-8th.  AAF expects to publish a complete report on the proceedings and recommendations in the spring of 2016. If you would like to be notified when the report is available, please email Design for Learning Project Manager, Anieca Lord at

Over 75 architects and educators gathered for the fourth National Summit on School Design as part of the 75th anniversary of the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois. Organized by the American Architectural Foundation, the Summit convened design leaders for two intense days of discussion on how the architecture community can engage educators in designing the next generation of learning centers. The Summit opened with the presentation of the first Design for Learning Leadership Award to architectural firm Perkins+Will and an educational tour of the iconic Crow Island Elementary School. Built in 1940, Crow Island School is celebrated for its transformational innovations in school design.

The Summit was one of a series of closely aligned national engagements that culminated with the first Summit on Next Generation High Schools held at the White House on Tuesday, November 10th.  AAF’s President and CEO, Ron Bogle, was among the 150 delegates invited to the White House Summit, and was one of a select group of presenters. Bogle’s participation marked the first time the design community has had a voice at such a high-level White House event.

“The timing of our Design Summit so close to the White House Summit gave AAF the opportunity to bring design into the national education discussion at the highest level,” said Bogle. “There is a lot of momentum building given the recent launch by Laurene Powell Jobs of the new $50 million XQ Super School Project.” Bogle attended the National Science Foundation’s Next Generation STEM Learning for All forum as well.

The National Summit on School Design built on AAF’s decade of work promoting design thinking among educators, and gave AAF a platform to update participants on its current work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In six school districts selected by the Gates Foundation, AAF’s Design for Learning initiative provides leadership and technical assistance to educators and administrators to support the transformation of their 30 schools into spaces that better support personalized learning

Crow Island 4

At the start of the first day of discussions, Bogle introduced the three-stage model that is at the heart of Design for Learning’s work: disruption, design thinking, and change management. He noted that this model has so far been successful in giving teachers and education leaders new tools and methodologies they need to more fully realize their visions for updating the educational opportunities in their communities. One session of the Summit was given over to reports from school district leaders from Saint Paul, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas who had already gone through the Design for Learning process.

The majority of the two-day Summit was organized around three rounds of five minute rapid-fire presentations followed by in-depth breakout sessions for closer discussions on each presentation topic. Topics covered were:

  • The Transformation of Teaching and Learning
  • Disruption: New Design Thinking for a New Learning Culture
  • Advancing the Co-Design Concept
  • Empowerment by Design
  • Next Gen Learning Environments
  • Cities as Learning Eco-systems
  • Impacts of New Learning Technologies
  • Driving Innovation from Start to Finish
  • Responding to Regulatory Policy and Practice

To provide a framework for the discussions, Bogle asked participants to consider how architects and educators might work together to transform the 115,000 existing public schools into 21st century community-based learning spaces. School districts around the country currently spend $14 billion annually on school renovation, repair and construction, but few of these renovations are keeping pace with today’s innovative teaching practices.

The consensus among participants was that this $14 billion could better leveraged if the architecture community could identify more models of excellence and “show” educators the power of design thinking.  Kerry Leonard, AIA, Principal of FGM Architects and Design for Learning’s Architectural Fellow, noted, “We know how to design green sustainable schools and we know how to design good schools. Our real talent is working with a team to put all the pieces together; integrating the educator’s design of a learning curriculum, technology and community spaces into a place and space that works for teachers and for students who think entirely differently than their parents.”

Throughout the two days, discussions were marked by a clear recognition that architects and educators must develop a common language and understanding of each other’s design objectives in order to reimagine and remake today’s schools.  Dr. RJ Webber, an Assistant Superintendent for Novi Community School District in Detroit, Michigan, asked, “Why is it that Crow Island is still considered the epitome of great school design yet 75 years later so few schools meet that standard – what is the disconnect?“

Crow Island 3

More than a few participants noted that the Summit was unusual in that it had an equal number of educators and architects, which helped educators recognize the value of design thinking. Gina Burkhardt, CEO of Jobs for the Future, stated, “I design learning pathways in high schools and community colleges and, until today, it had not occurred to me to put an architect, who thinks about design in an entirely different way from me, on my pathways design team. Going forward, it makes a lot of sense to do just that.”

Again and again, participants came back to the need to develop a common language among architects and educators to support the co-design of new learning environments that can improve student achievement. Educators at the Summit believed that high schools would soon start to move away from the hourly accreditation system and that the emergence of more personalized and project-based learning coupled with the growth of the maker space movement would require new design thinking. Recognizing that state and local regulations sometimes limited the ability to innovate in school design, one key recommendation is for the creation of innovation zones to allow educators, architects, and community stakeholders to collaborate and co-design the next generation of schools that support these new modes of learning.

Many people at the Summit welcomed the fact that the rigid boundaries of 20th century education were rapidly giving way to a recognition that schools had to meet students where they are, that the learning space was not just the classroom or the building, but the city and the globe. The connectivity of the current generation of students and their ability to learn inside and outside of school on their own time was seen as a great opportunity. At the same time, there was significant discussion and concern among participants around the issues of equity in public education and schools still provided that important space for the social and emotional development of students. Educators expressed the need for design to address these issues so that school remained a “magical place to learn”.

Bogle closed the Summit by offering a preview of two commitments he would make on the behalf of AAF and the broader design community at the White House. First, AAF would commit to engaging an additional 100 forward- leaning urban school districts by the end of 2018. Second, he proposed that AAF would develop a new “Design for Learning Leadership Institute” based on AAF’s successful model engaging mayors and other civic leaders in city design. As Bogle noted, “Design is a powerful asset for guiding the change we seek in creating a new generation of high schools.”

The National Summit on School Design was planned with support from Perkins+WillFGM Architects, and Winnetka Public Schools. AAF also gratefully acknowledges the following event sponsors:







Educator Fund
Cuningham Group
VMDO Architects
Dull Olsen Weekes – IBI Group Architects
Avenues World Holdings LLC
DLR Group
JCJ Architecture
Mahlum | Architects

Photo courtesy of Parrotfish Films.
Video courtesy of Perkins+Will.

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Posted in: Center for the Advancement of Architecture, Design for Learning
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