Design Features for
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The conference provided several case studies of innovative alternatives in
learning environments. I have gone into more depth in the case studies that were most
pertinent to the foci of this study. The titles of the case studies were those given by the
Case Study 1 -- Open and Flexible Learning Spaces
School]. Reino Tapaninen as Chief Architect of the National Board of Education in
Helsinki, Finland, opened his remarks for the case study with a presentation slide
showing a line of "identical blockheads" emerging in a straight line from a "block" school
building. Recognizing that learning needs to be taking place differently for societal and
economical reasons, Finland had changed its educational system to be learner centered,
cooperative, and project-based.
The Heinavaara Elementary School was designed two years ago through a
cooperative agreement between Finnish architects and Cuningham Group, led by Bruce
Jilk. The school is located north of Helsinki and is designed for 190 learners. According
to Tapaninen, learners are involved with projects all day long. The learners learn, study,
and assess together and proceed at their own levels. They work in small and large groups,
use technology to access information, have panel discussions and assemblies, create
displays, and give presentations.
Recognizing that schools also provide a place for social growth, Heinavaara
Elementary was designed to be a place that learners: (a) bonded with, (b) belonged to, (c)
met with peers, and (d) took part in the learning process and life together. The spaces
allow for different sized groups, have laboratories for experimentation, and have
individual workspaces. Teachers learn and experiment with the learners and are located
in the middle of the learning spaces. In keeping with the nature of projects, dining was
available in small "cafes" that are open all day with no prescribed times to eat.
Design Features of the Physical Environment
According to Tapaninen, flexibility, openness, and visibility of learning at
Heinavaara result from designing the facility around a central resource
area. There are
student sharing spaces, like gazebos, only for the learners. Production of information and
projects occur in large open spaces rather than in rooms separated by corridors.
Comfortable and versatile furniture, and soft and inviting lighting are important features
that support learner centered, collaborative, project-based learning.
An urban environment was created in the design of the school. The outside
entrance was designed like a city square to provide a gathering space. From this square,
each workshop area had its own outside entrance or the learners could enter through the
main door and pass by a large hearth at the center of the plaza. The hearth provided a
"warm start" to the day. From the plaza, there were streets with cafes, net surfing and
media bars; and a large information resource area. The streets lead to the workshop
spaces. The building is also used a learning tool in that the night sky is painted on the
ceiling and signage in the building is written using other languages.
Case Study 2 -- Designing a Place for Problem Solving: The Center for Applied
Technology and Career Exploration. Daniel Duke, professor of educational leadership
and the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design at the University
of Virginia, began his presentation with a story about one of the site tours from the
previous evening. After visiting a K-8 Montessori School in Amsterdam, the tour bus was
unable to maneuver a street corner due to a parked car. There were no alternate routes. To
solve the problem, the bus driver asked for six volunteers to get out of the bus, lift the
car, and place it on the sidewalk, thus, giving the bus enough room to get around the
corner. Duke asked the conference participants, "Can we do this for education reform?"
Four years ago, the community of Rocky Mount, Virginia, needed to address a
high dropout rate and at the same time needed a new middle school. The new middle
school was designed as a Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration. The per
capital income for the region was less than $16,000; forty percent of the adults had less
than a high school diploma, and 32 percent of the students were eligible for free lunches.
The preference would have been to build a traditional middle school for 1000 learners.
The cost would have been $14 million dollars, but the community had passed a $7
million dollar bond.
Duke explained that the educators and community recognized the 8th grade is a
crucial year and often is the time of "losing them [the students]" from the school system.
Through a community-based design process, the community created a school focused on
career clusters and project-based learning. The aspiration was to keep the learners in
school and to begin to prepare them for careers.
Because of the funding limitation, it was decided to build a school for 500
learners. Half of the middle school students would attend the school for half of the year.
The other 500 learners would remain at the existing school. The groups switch locations
mid-year. During the 18-week semester at the Center for Applied Technology and Career
Exploration, each learner selects three, six-week career modules. The learner spends each
day of the six-week period in that module.
The learning is based on real community issues that need to be solved. The
learners present her/his findings to community agencies, local governments, and to
boards. The modules provide team learning, problem solving, improved oral and written
communication skills, clarification of career paths, and the opportunity to develop a work
ethic comprised of responsibility, initiative, and dependability.
Design Features of the Physical Environment
Duke explained the school is designed as a center with no traditional classrooms,
laboratories, cafeteria, or gym. There is an electronic library, one computer per two
learners, individual workstations rather than desks, a commons that provides food service
for a three-hour time block to better accommodate the problem-based learning process,
storage in each workstation, and access to the local YMCA for physical fitness activities
Case Study 3 -- Designing for the
Unknown. [Alpha High
School]. Norm Dull,
architect with Dull Olson Weeks, described the dilemma of designing learning facilities
for a future that is unknown. Educators request facilities that are flexible and adaptable in
hopes of gaining a facility that will be as usable in thirty years as it is today. One high
school his firm designed is Alpha High School (AHS) in Gresham, Oregon, in the
Portland Metropolitan area. Alpha High School is an alternative high school designed
around the needs of the learners. Two goals for the learners are: (a) to develop a positive
self-image, and (b) to gain skills necessary to be employed upon graduation.
For half of the day the learners are at Alpha High School taking academic courses
to graduate, and the other half of the day the learners are at a work site. As much as
possible, the curricula for the academic courses is designed using projects or service
learning. The projects range from growing plants for a stream restoration in a National
Forest to learning about running a small business such as video production or bicycle
repair. Over 200 business partners come into the school to provide guidance and school-
to-work experiences. The school also has space for small business incubators in which
the learners are given the opportunity to observe and participate in the business.
Design Features of the Physical Environment
Dull pointed out the most impressive design feature of AHS is the ability to move
all the walls and cabinetry in the learning portions of both floors. Learning spaces can be
created for groups as small as 10 and the total area can be opened up to house over 200
people. The administrative area of the school can be secured so that the facility can be
used by others in the evenings and weekends.
Two other noticeable design features about the AHS that differs from the
traditional comprehensive high school are: (a) the lack of a large parking lot and (b) its
small size. Not much parking area is needed because the learners and community users
have easy access to public transportation with AHS being located next to light-rail and
bus lines. Again, the size of the AHS remains small with having just half of the learner
population at the facility at one time, while the other half are at work sites.
The design does not include a traditional library, cafeteria, or a gymnasium.
Alpha High School partners with the public library, which is located a few blocks away
and because the learners are at the facility only half of the day, they do not need full meal
service provided on-site or an onsite gymnasium. There is a snack center with vending
machines and a microwave to heat food. Alpha High School is the cornerstone of an
urban redevelopment project in Gresham, Oregon, and is used as a community center in
the evenings and weekends by local Senior Centers and Mt. Hood Community College.
The Space Workshop
Six design theme workshops held at the conference were: (a) Location, (b) Space,
(c) Time, (d) Scale, (e) Cost, and (f) Context. I participated in the Space Workshop and
explain the process of the workshop in the study because it served to guide the design of
Phase III of this study. I also describe the features of the physical learning environment
that were identified during the workshop that were pertinent to this study.
The description of the Space Workshop read, "…the basic building block of a
school design has been the classroom, a setting supportive of lecture-style instruction."
The question given to the workshop participants was, "How should the spaces for
learning be designed to accommodate new learning approaches, specifically for the Study
House concept?" The Study House concept (Meijer, 1996), was developed in the early
1990's by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science in response to education
reform and implemented in 1997. The Study House prepares learners at the secondary
level to enter a bachelor's degree level university in The Netherlands and accommodates
both academic and vocational opportunities. The concept develops critical thinking,
relevancy to the learning, and responsibility for planning one's own learning by: (a)
working on projects more independently and in small groups and (b) teachers being more
of a coach than an instructor. The physical learning environment to support a Study
House includes spaces of varying sizes to support teacher/faculty-led instruction,
individual work, small and large group work, project work, and access to technology and
other resources. Elly Reinders, Jan Wagemaker, and Jeff Lackney were the workshop
Design Process. The process began with a question to the workshop participants
to think back to a successful learning experience and to make note of the following
things: (a) what was the learning experience, (b) what activity was occurring, (c) where
were they, and (d) who were they with. The workshop participants discussed their
experiences with the others at the table, wrote the information from the above questions
on large sheets of paper, posted the sheets of paper on the wall, and the workshop group
discussed the experiences looking for common patterns or themes. The facilitators of the
workshop analyzed the information and determined that 77 percent of the listed learning
experiences took place outside of school-based learning activities and settings.
To further stimulate the workshop participants' thinking about educational
experiences, video clips from The Dead Poet's Society movie were shown. The movie
was about a residential college preparatory school for young men. The clips included
scenes depicting the structure of the school's physical setting, social structures, learning
practices, and a parent's influence on a young person's educational and life choices.
The workshop participants self-formed into three groups and were asked to design
a space for a "Study House." As each group began the process, the facilitators became
aware that the groups were each and collectively resisting the assignment. The groups
wanted to focus on the philosophical concept of whole communities becoming learning
communities, taking the learning out into the community, and bringing the community
into the learning process rather than focus on designing a particular type of facility or a
singular concept. The facilitators allowed the groups to proceed in the new direction and
also noted that each group had developed its own process to complete the assignment.
The facilitators named the three groups: (a) the "verbal group" [that wanted to talk and
talk], (b) the "kinesthetic group" [who wanted to begin to design immediately], and (c)
the "future group" [who began with an initial discussion of what learning may be like in
the future and then moved into the design phase].
After the majority of the time being spent in discussion, the verbal group in which
I participated, produced three learning diagrams in the last ninety minutes before the
report-out session to the whole conference. The first diagram illustrated the development
of the learning process along the age spectrum from birth to high school. The group
member who drew the diagram explained that in his view, learning initially started in a
contained, fairly safe, box-like, environment and through elementary education a few
holes and tears began to appear in the box as the learner discovered more knowledge. By
middle school one or two sides of the box had been kicked out and by graduation from
high school, it was his hope that all four sides would have been flattened.
The second diagram showed the dynamic links between learning sites all over the
city or geographic area. The connections varied with some being one-way, others were
two-way, some were formal and others were informal links.
Wanting to develop a more in-depth learning community, the third diagram
(Figure 2.) had four "streets" or "pathways." The intersection of the four streets was
a basic core learning area with resources, media, computers, and staff. In each of the four
directions from the central learning core was one of the following learning spaces: (a)
personal spaces for students and the community; (b) project-group spaces; (c) exploratory
spaces for science, equipment, and technologies; and (d) social experience and activities
spaces. The diagram showed direct flow in and out of all of the spaces, using wireless and
Internet technologies, community providers as teachers, and learning staff going out into
the community. The social experience and activities area also provided community
support services and a basic commons area for the community, learners, and staff.
The kinesthetic group built a three-dimensional model using construction paper
and added accessories to simulate the built environment. The learning community was
built around and into a lake, using the lake as one pod for learning. The learning was
interdisciplinary with a multicultural, multidirectional, and whole community focus.
The future group looked to the year 2025 and created a learning village within one
structure. The structure housed cinemas, markets, cafes, offices, and meeting spaces all
providing a sense of "voyeurism" into the learning spaces and processes taking place in
Figure 2. Learning Community Diagram.
The process used in the Space Workshop illustrated that in a relatively short time
frame, it was possible to have a small group of people, who basically did not know one
another, but all of whom had knowledge and experience in education and/or architecture,
to do the following three things: (a) produce insightful designs, (b) identify the features
of the design, and (c) provide insight into the thinking behind the selection of the features
into the design process itself. Another learning experience from the Space Workshop that
I applied to Phase III of the study was the participant group might want to change the
assignment to what is most pertinent for them at the time. The importance of the lesson
was as a facilitator of a learning project, it is crucial to recognize when to deviate from
the planned process and agenda and let the group's work flow.
Findings of Phase II
Five new features emerged in Phase II that were not identified in Phase I: (a)
access to food and beverage; (b) lighting such as task lighting and light tables; (c) high-
bay, shop space (d) technology laboratories; and (e) slump spaces or places to generate
synergy, create new ideas, think, and relax. Features recommended in Phase I that were
not mentioned in Phase II were: (a) public display space, (b) lockable personal storage,
(c) personal display space, and (d) durability.
The analysis of Phase I included clustering the design features into four
preliminary categories of group size, learning activities, adjacencies, and furnishings. The
five new features from Phase II fit into the categories as next described. Features building
as a learning tool, high-bay, shop space, and technology laboratories were added to the
learning activities category. An additional feature identified was the infrastructure of the
building being used as a learning tool to teach concepts such as sociology, psychology,
mathematics, scientific and environmental principles. Specialized infrastructure and
equipment needed to support specific learning activities were identified. Lighting (e.g.,
general purpose and task based) was added to the furnishings category as an element to
support learning processes. Further analysis of Phase II identified a new category of
design features, which I labeled as psychological and physiological support referring to
the human functions that need to be taken care of during the learning process.
Psychological and Physiological Support
The design features put into that category were access to food and beverages and
"slump" spaces. One could argue that all learners need access to food and beverage;
however, the participants stated that with collaborative, project-based learning, the
activity takes place in longer blocks of time and it could be disruptive to break from the
learning at appointed times rather than at natural breaking points. The participant who
described "slump spaces" gave them a dual purpose. One was to offer a space similar to a
"think tank" that is an energizing space to create ideas. The second purpose was a place
for a small group of individuals to get away from formal activities to relax and reflect.
In the analysis of Phase I, the feature, sense of pride and ownership, did not fit
into any of the categories that emerged in Phase I; however, from further descriptions and
purposes being described in Phase II, I placed it into the psychological and physiological
support category. This decision was based on the psychological aspects of belonging and
not feeling anonymous, and needing a space to "own," by personalizing and caring for the
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