Voice of the Teacher

The question that kept tugging at me—the one that finally prompted me to pack my bags and head out on the road—was this: what has been the real impact of recent innovations in school design on how well schools actually work? In other words, how does the design of the learning environment affect learning, teaching, and educational innovation itself?

In search of answers, my colleagues and I at the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) turned to educators who work each day in schools recognized for their innovative design. We called the project Voice of the Teacher.

Over the past nine years, as AAF President and CEO I’ve taken part in thousands of stimulating conversations about how design shapes the ways people use cities, public spaces, and all sorts of buildings. Since the launch of AAF’s Great Schools by Design (GSbD) program in 2005, those conversations have focused heavily on schools. With Target as our presenting sponsor and KnowledgeWorks as our partner, my colleagues and I have crisscrossed the country, conducting institutes, interactive design workshops, forums, and summits on the latest thinking about the design of the learning environment. Our goals have been twofold: to invigorate a national dialogue about school design and to support better outcomes in the design of school buildings.

By the time we launched Voice of the Teacher, in partnership with Target and Gensler, we had worked directly with hundreds of school leaders in more than 60 school districts across the country. We had also advised both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the creators of the NYC Department of Education’s groundbreaking “School of One” on the role of design in educational innovation. And we had conducted a structured program—Voice of the Student—to involve students in and elicit their perspectives on the design of the learning environment. I am pleased to report that the feedback we received from these efforts underscored their positive impact; for many participants, the experience was transformational.

And while we had certainly raised the design consciousness of many educational leaders, we had also done a lot of listening and learning—and we had confirmed two of our deeply held convictions: (1) that the design of the learning environment plays a critically important role in both student achievement and educational innovation and (2) that an understanding of design is an extremely valuable element in an educator’s leadership portfolio.

But rich though these conversations were, they tended to focus on the future: on school designs and renovations that had not yet been implemented or were only in the process of implementation. I came away from these discussions keenly interested in observing how, exactly, the relationship between innovative school design and innovative educational philosophy was working in practice. How were teachers responding to new ideas in design? How were those ideas affecting their teaching, and vice versa?

To get a first-hand feel for that interaction, my colleagues at AAF and I visited seven schools for Voice of the Teacher that had been recognized as particularly innovative in design: the Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver, Colorado; Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, California; High Tech High Chula Vista in Chula Vista, California; New Line Learning Academy in Kent, England; Northside College Preparatory in Chicago, Illinois; Rosa Parks School in Portland, Oregon; and School Without Walls in Washington, DC. We also did some special work with New York City’s School of One. At each school, we engaged teachers in a series of roundtable discussions to learn how they felt about and used their school buildings. While we benefited from visiting each school and gained valuable perspectives from all the teachers whom we talked with, for this article I have selected examples that struck me as particularly transformative models for the relationship between teaching, learning, and the design of the learning environment.

By focusing this program on teachers, we benefited from a perspective not commonly included in design conversations. Of course, we also had a chance to observe the schools themselves in action. And we sought informal opportunities to talk with their leaders, students, and other members of their communities. The comments below draw on this body of conversations and observations.

Being President of AAF does have its benefits. In this instance, I was able to assign myself the role of leading the roundtable discussions. For me, those discussions were fascinating. I had the opportunity to see for myself just how many ways innovative school design is enabling innovation in education.

The timing of our Voice of the Teacher conversations could not have been better. For some years there has been a growing consensus about the directions in which teaching and learning are evolving. Pioneering educators are now experimenting with various formulas that reflect that consensus. Of the many changes underway in education, two trends in particular are revolutionizing the design of the learning environment:

  • the shift from the teacher as a “sole practitioner” to interactive team teaching
  • the recognition that students have a variety of learning styles requiring varied and flexible learning situations.

Each of these trends poses significant challenges to the design of the learning environment—and in turn opens up broad opportunities for innovation.

Very likely you, like me, have vivid memories of spending long hours in a succession of traditional classrooms. Inevitably, row upon rigid row of desks faced the front of the room, where one teacher, standing before a blackboard, commanded the room, wielding absolute authority along with an apparently unlimited supply of chalk and a dusty eraser. While white boards have largely replaced the old chalk boards, and more technology is generally scattered about, sadly, far too many schools being built today still replicate this traditional model. Each school building has a collection of near-identical classrooms situated along long corridors—an arrangement that isolates teachers and students.

In contrast, several of the schools I visited in the course of our Voice of the Teacher project featured highly interactive team teaching as a centerpiece of the their respective educational programs. In these schools, the learning environment has been designed to create more transparency, flexibility, and community.

For instance, High Tech High Chula Vista, the newest addition to a family of nine high-performing liberal arts charter schools in the San Diego area, has few interior walls. Those that do exist consist of large expanses of glass, many with partitions that can be moved as needed when teachers want to join forces. Importantly, teachers and students can see each other, either directly or through the glass walls. This visibility creates a sense of connection across learning spaces. It also makes it possible to see what other classes are doing, which makes collaboration easier for both teachers and students. An important outcome of this design, for teachers and students alike, is that no matter where you are in the building, you are not alone. The school is designed to be a community.

Image of the glass walls at High Tech High Chula Vista

Many walls at High Tech High Chula Vista are made of glass, which allows teachers and students to see in and out of classrooms and creates a sense of connection across learning spaces. Photo by Brady Architectural Photography

Teachers commented to us that this kind of design allows them to collaborate and interact with each other and their students and has inspired them to develop new ways of teaching. “You’re not just stuck in your own little box,” noted a ninth-grade humanities teacher at High Tech High.

For example, I saw one instance where a science teacher recognized that one of her students was struggling with the material at hand and needed additional attention. The glass walls allowed her to wave to a colleague, who was proctoring an exam across the hall, for assistance. That colleague came into the room and gave the struggling student the attention he needed, while the original teacher continued the lesson without missing a beat. Meanwhile, thanks again to the glass walls, both teachers were able to keep an eye on the students taking their exams.

On another occasion, I saw teachers of three different grades bring their students together in a large space to begin a joint humanities class. After using the integrated technology in that space to introduce a series of images from the history of art, they then moved the walls to create several semi-divided breakout rooms. This arrangement accommodated interpretative discussions at different levels of complexity and made it possible for the teachers not only to float among the discussions but also to rearrange students to foster more effective group dynamics.

One High Tech High faculty member made an observation that struck me as particularly profound: if other schools adopted the same concept employed here, “it would fundamentally change the nature of the teaching profession.” What was it about High Tech High’s facility and educational program that was so transformative? For the teachers there, the answers were legion: they included working as a team, learning from each other, being challenged by their peers in a spirit of professional respect, and working in an environment especially designed to support and encourage collaboration and (in the words of one teacher) “prevent isolation.” As one teacher reported, “it took a full semester for me to be ‘deprogrammed’ after teaching in another [more traditional] high school environment, but now every day renews me and reminds me why I wanted to be a teacher!”

While many teachers find such change exhilarating, for others it can be difficult. As one teacher commented, “some educators don’t want to give up their private classrooms. They feel safe and don’t get challenged as much as they would in expanded, team-oriented spaces.” However, those views tend to change dramatically when teachers actually experience more open and flexible teaching spaces. As Tamala Newsome, principal of Rosa Parks School in Portland put it, “You’d put a teacher in this [new] classroom, and all of a sudden they’d realize [they weren’t] constrained by walls, and they would open their blinds and open their doors.”

The design of Rosa Parks School, an elementary school built in 2006, emphasizes a sense of neighborhood. Classrooms are grouped into friendly clusters around a central commons and have large exterior windows offering lots of light and views of Mt. St. Helens. Transparent interior walls and vivid colors make the school open and lively. As a result, “kids feel tightly connected to all of the other students, not just those in their own classes,” explained Vicki Phillips, education director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and former superintendent of Portland Public Schools. Teachers at Rosa Parks School also benefit from this heightened connectivity. As one third-grade teacher added, “We talk a lot about cross-grade communicating and sharing ideas. Such involvement can come from simply being able to make eye contact across a space.” Whether this kind of collaboration is spontaneous or meticulously planned, the design of the building helps make it possible.

Rosa Parks School is also an exciting example because it extends the idea of neighborhood a step further, reaching beyond its students and teachers to incorporate the surrounding community. From its inception, the school was intended as a hub for services for the entire neighborhood. In planning the school, Portland Public Schools joined with the Housing Authority of Portland, the Boys & Girls Club of Portland, the City of Portland’s University Park Community Center, and others to create a multi-purpose space. This goal for the school is reflected in the design of the building, which signals its open-door policy: each side of the building offers an attractive entrance. With so many doors and windows, visitors approaching Rosa Parks School always feel welcome. As Principal Newsome put it, for the school “to sit here and not turn its back on anyone says the whole community is welcome.”

This focus on the larger community has been highly successful. Not only have community members enjoyed the scheduled activities at the school (before, during, and after school hours), but the fact that families come there has led to lower levels of student absenteeism, better care for the school building, and stronger parent involvement than ever before. Teachers noted that having a community presence in the school seemed to encourage students to be more mentally present as well.

Space, time, and even the furniture are usually pretty structured in traditionally designed schools. Students typically sit hour after hour on hard chairs (often not designed for comfort). Heavy tables and unwieldy desks are arranged in set positions, where they generally remain unmoved throughout the school year. The basic assumption is that students, teachers, and the day’s lessons must adapt to these preset structures and spaces.

Similarly, traditional schools typically consist of highly defined single-use spaces that are rarely used—or usable—for anything else. So the physical environment and the way people use it are effectively set in stone.

But as we all now understand, students learn well in a variety of modes and styles: listening to lectures, engaging in small interactive discussion groups, receiving individual tutoring, reviewing lessons with a peer, conducting hands-on experiments, constructing three-dimensional models, doing online research, listening to language recordings, playing digital learning games, etc. Some students are more adept at learning through one particular mode than through others. Where possible, most teachers like to engage their students in multiple modes of learning throughout the school day.

The bottom line is that in designing the learning environment, we should take into account the full range of learning modes; and the learning space should be designed to accommodate the student, the teacher, and the lesson, not the other way around.

Toward that end, the teachers we talked with emphasized the importance of having varied and flexible learning spaces that support specific curricular needs. Innovative school design isn’t simply about taking away walls and making spaces moveable; it’s about creating a variety of spaces that cater to specific educational needs. High Tech High, in my view, provides a particularly fine model in this regard. This is of course no accident. At High Tech High, the curriculum and the design of the learning environment are seamlessly integrated; both flow from a singular educational vision based on many years of experience and innovation.

In these new designs, we are seeing space that is open, nimble, flexible, and multipurpose. But this is definitely not a return to the “open plan” approach, a widely criticized concept that influenced the basic design of thousands of schools during the 1960s and early 1970s. Open plan schools were designed with large, open, flexible spaces that could adapt to changing educational needs. Because such designs were new to school personnel, the way the schools were used depended heavily on staff training, as well as on proper management of the immediate environment. Perhaps as a result of a disconnect between teachers, curriculum, and design, teachers in many of those schools ended up arranging the furniture to recreate traditional classrooms—in effect reverting to using the open spaces exactly as they had used traditionally designed schools—old wine in new bottles.

For learning spaces to serve actual educational purposes, they cannot merely be open. The design of the learning space must connect directly to the specific curriculum being implemented and the ways that learning and teaching will occur in that school. Spaces should be not only flexible but diverse, with each space defined for one or more specific purposes.

A school that carries the idea of flexibility and diversity about as far as it can go is New York City’s School of One. Last year, TIME Magazine recognized School of One as one of the “50 Best Inventions of 2009”—making it the first educational innovation ever to be included on that list.

The School of One’s innovative curriculum centers on adapting teaching methods to the individual needs of students, not just in general principle but in detail and continually. This means monitoring what each student is learning and how well he or she is learning it, day by day and hour by hour—and constantly tweaking each student’s schedule, assignments, and learning settings in response. The challenges of orchestrating such a flexible approach to teaching are immense. Suffice it to say, the school relies on a great deal of technology, highly sophisticated software, and teams of dedicated teachers. Clearly, the solution also involves creating educational spaces that are quite different from those in your average school.

Long before School of One opened, its founder, Joel Rose, asked me for assistance in envisioning a physical space that could support his educational vision. AAF was pleased to help guide his concept toward realization in an initial pilot model. We did so by organizing a series of “design charrettes”—two- to three-day intensively interactive workshops structured to elicit creative design ideas—with Joel and other members of his team from the New York City Department of Education.

An image of diagrams that emerged from a School of One charrette

Diagrams that emerged from a GSbD School of One charrette illustrate the flexible and varied learning spaces that would soon be carried out in the pilot school.

Through that creative process, we came up with a unique design concept for the educational space that could house such an innovative program. At the same time, we helped Joel and his team further define the educational innovations they sought. In the course of our intensive work with School of One, I observed first-hand how the design process can work to protect and enrich educational innovation—and how it can allow educators to implement the changes they seek more fully.

The pilot model that AAF and School of One developed set forth all the main design elements of the school that is now in successful operation. Each morning, students enter into a large central learning space, where they receive their individual schedules of activities for the day. From there, they can use one of various spaces that have flexible configurations, or one of several other spaces that have fixed configurations. There are also a number of small alcoves in the semi-open space to accommodate one-on-one and small-group learning activities.

Importantly, while each space in the school suggests one or more specific uses, it remains flexible. That way, students and teachers can develop and run with their own ideas about how to use the space. In our experience, inviting people to interact flexibly with a space actively encourages creativity.

Another school widely recognized for its academic excellence and innovative design is the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST). Here the focus, influenced in part by the High Tech High example, is on spaces that support collaborative teamwork and inspire teachers and students.

Earlier this year, DSST received national recognition when it was named a finalist in the White House’s 2010 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. It was one of six schools nationwide identified as representing “the best that American public education has to offer.” From the school’s first three graduating classes, 100 percent of the students have been accepted into four-year colleges. Of all those students, fully half are in the first generation of their families to be college bound.

These would be extraordinary results for any school—even one that could hand-pick its students from a broad pool of applicants. For a public school whose admissions criteria ensure that the demographics of the student body mirror those of the other schools in the district, this level of success is almost unthinkable.

Full credit must go to DSST’s lively, engaging curriculum and talented teaching staff. But the school building itself also plays an important role, acting both as a facilitator of innovative approaches to learning and as a learning resource in its own right. From the outside, the school is a bold, bright-colored pile of intriguing shapes, like a set of gigantic building blocks tumbled together. Inside, the spaces are large, airy, painted vivid colors, and flooded with light. There are high ceilings, lots of interior windows, and exposed rafters, beams, and ductwork. Flexible spaces allow classes to get up, move around, reconfigure themselves into smaller groups, or join forces with other classes. As a number of students and teachers noted, the building is very, very cool.

DSST’s focus on project-based learning required functional but creative spaces. The result was a variety of intentionally planned free spaces, which can be used not only as gathering spaces for large groups, but also as additional learning spaces for small groups and as informal areas for students to use during their free time. For instance, DSST students start their day in a carpeted commons area just inside the school’s entrance; teachers say that this space fosters a relaxed, community feel. Another flexible space is the galleria—a two-story corridor that extends along the school’s spine, overlooking areas below and doubling as space to accommodate overflow from classrooms.

Image of students in a collaborative space at the Denver School of Science and Technology

Students at the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) start each day in a carpeted commons area just inside the school’s entrance; teachers say that this space fosters a relaxed, community feel.

The brilliance of the design ideas at both High Tech High and DSST is in the creation of a lot of different spaces whose primary uses are intuitively evident. Kids know how to use them even though they aren’t labeled. A window nook, for example, might have been designed with a particular purpose in mind, but it was also designed to let people invent ways to use it. During my time at DSST, I watched two students do homework together in one nook area, while in another, a student used incoming light to trace a drawing on paper held up against the window. Later in the day, that same space was used for a one-on-one tutoring session between a student and teacher. Ultimately, the way these learning spaces are used is up to teachers and students.

In all the innovative schools I visited, I found that relationships among teachers as well as between teachers and students have become livelier and more interactive. Surely these tremendously open, flexible, and diverse spaces have made a significant contribution to that richer interaction.

Following the Voice of the Teacher discussions, my colleagues and I at AAF were curious to see how the emerging ideas highlighted above were playing out internationally. So, as a capstone to the earlier conversations, I visited New Line Learning Academy in Kent, England. There I shared with British teachers my observations about the ways American teachers and students are embracing innovative school design and incorporating its flexibility into their teaching. In turn, I gathered additional perspectives on the subject from my hosts.

It was not surprising to see that New Line had adopted many design ideas similar to those I had seen at innovative schools across the United States. At the core of its curriculum, New Line held many of the same principles as the American schools I had visited, including seeing schools as collaborative communities and appreciating the need for a flexible and diverse learning environment. But New Line took a slightly different approach to incorporating those principles into its physical space.

New Line’s solution is based on a large, flexible “plaza” that was designed to encourage collaboration. The plaza includes a variety of static and fluid learning settings that can all be used simultaneously by large groups, small groups, and individual students. Moveable furniture and different lighting techniques make it easy for users to reconfigure the space to accommodate different kinds of teaching and learning methods.

New Line’s plaza concept is not dissimilar from other designs featuring large, flexible central spaces. But New Line took that feature a step further. Unlike some other schools, it didn’t just give teachers a large, mostly empty space and leave them to come up with uses for it. Instead, teachers at New Line are given the option of dividing the space into various configurations, the authority to reorganize furniture and walls, and practical training in how to use the space. As early as the prototype stage, specific configurations and uses for the space were suggested, so that teachers could begin to implement options they already had in mind as they began teaching in the new school. And everything I saw at New Line points to one conclusion: its innovative approach is working.

Despite the clear convergence of underlying educational principles in the schools described above, none of these schools’ designs should be seen as a model to be simply replicated in another context. For each school that needs a new or extensively redesigned building, designers and educational leaders need to work together to create a space that responds directly to that school’s specific principles, goals, setting, and community. Each curriculum has its own ideal form waiting to be realized.

What is clear, in each case, is that design plays a critical role in bringing innovative educational ideas to life—from honing the original vision to realizing it in a school. In truth, for the truly innovative teaching described above to take place, innovative school design is not only highly desirable but essential.

And in conducting the design process, it is vitally important to include the voice of the teacher. Teachers in schools that actively involved them in envisioning the new space—and subsequently trained them in ways to use it—embraced the space and became creative in its use much faster than teachers in schools that had not so included them.

On behalf of the American Architectural Foundation, I am deeply privileged to engage in the process of design innovation as it unfolds in schools across the United States and beyond. It is our hope that by setting forth the shining examples above, we may inspire other school communities to aspire to innovatively designed and inspirational school buildings—buildings that their students and teachers and educational leaders will all agree are very, very cool.

Featured photo by Iwan Bagus. Illustration by Julia Ames.

Share | Print
Posted in: Center for the Advancement of Architecture, Design for Learning, Great Schools by Design, Print, School Design, Technology

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.