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Interview: Beth Hebert

“Learning environments makes us stop and think a bit about what we mean when we talk about “learning”…and what spaces are compatible with that type of engagement.” — Beth Hebert

Interview with Beth Hebert, July, 2006

Background:  As the DesignShare team knows first-hand, there are many architects and planners that can make a great case for the value of innovative design for educational facilities. 

On the other hand, when you can speak with a life-long educator who speaks with equal passion and wisdom about the merger of architecture and learning, there is much to learn. Such is the case when you have the opportunity to speak with Beth Hebert about her experiences as a Principal at the Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois.

Beth started as a first-time principal at Crow Island, which she led for 27 years.  In addition, she conceived and organized the first national invitational conference on Children, Learning & School Design which took place in November of 1990 at Northwestern University.ure.

Furthermore, Dr. Hebert has written about and lectured extensively on the subject of student portfolios, authentic assessment, inclusion of special needs children in the classroom, school leadership, and school architect

DesignShare:   You began as a principal in your early 30’s at Crow Island.  Describe the impact of developing as a young administrator and educator within Crow Island, a school that is seen as a benchmark for all school designers.

Beth’s Reply:   

The impact was significant. Looking back on those early formative years as a first-time principal, I now realize how much my school leadership experience was profoundly affected by the design of Crow Island. The school’s notoriety summoned countless numbers of visiting architects - each one a mentor to me in some way. How fortunate I was to have this unique experience.

Principals everywhere talk a lot about the space in their schools, more often than not, with a negative or, at best, neutral point of view. It’s something we feel we have to cope with and to work around its deficiencies. As we plan for growing enrollments, new programs, and curricular initiatives, it’s not uncommon to overhear principals plot and strategize to carve out a particular space for a particular need - not always the best, but it will have to do. Generally speaking, principals are more than delighted if the design of their building isn’t an impediment to any current plans or needs. We rarely, if ever, experience the design of space as a reliable, trustworthy and positive factor in our schools. It’s almost unheard of to have a school’s design so thoughtfully conceived that it enhances the total school experience. I was one of the lucky ones who had just such a school.

I experienced the design of Crow Island in a way that not only supported, but even prompted certain leadership dispositions. Being in such a well-designed space day after day, year after year, actually enhanced my leadership. Not only was the space not fighting me, it facilitated what I knew how to do and inspired what I had not yet imagined how to do as a school leader. Let me give a few examples: A wide open entryway invited my principal’s welcoming ritual of standing at the front door each morning; the scaled size served as a constant reminder of my leadership purpose - the children; the walls of windows invited the outdoors and the community - a metaphor depicting the need for transparent leadership thinking.

I learned LOTS about school design each and every day. I can truly say that my understanding of school leadership and my understanding of school design developed synchronously. Both strands of understanding were embedded in each other - not unlike DNA’s double-helix-model. The impact of being a first-time principal in such an unusual setting yielded a unique blend of these two strands. So it’s difficult to tease out the influence of each…and that’s probably how it should be with an extraordinarily well designed school.

DesignShare:  Recently we had the opportunity to read your book, The Boss of the Whole School. We were struck by your observations while you were walking around the school itself.  If you could take a single element from the Crow Island design as a starting point for a new school — based on your needs as an administrator — what would it be?  How would it have a positive impact upon your kids, your teachers, your parents, and your community?"

Beth’s reply:

There are lots of possibilities from the Crow Island design to consider as a starting point for the design of a new school. It’s difficult to choose. The large welcoming foyer gives a sense of openness and spaciousness and it is certainly a powerful element in the school’s design. The flexibility of this space and its problem-solving abilities are enormous. On a moment’s notice it quickly and generously gives us a place for a school board meeting with the community, or a smaller meeting place for our parent group or a place for a 2nd grader to interview a staff member for the school paper without being too far away from his classroom, or a space for eighty 1st graders to have a brown-bag lunch. Another possibility is the auditorium - a room for all of us to gather as a school family - to exchange issues - enjoy the Spring Sing - to be together - a place that instills a feeling of  awe.

But if I have to choose a single element it would probably be the "workroom" i.e. the atelier adjacent to each classroom. This 10′ x 15′ (approx.) space, containing a bathroom, a work-sink, a counter, a window, a sliding door separating it from the larger classroom, is probably used more flexibly than any other space in the building. Throughout the year, each teacher and group of children recreated purpose and meaning for this space over and over again, limited only by their imaginations. That’s a powerful concept.

It was key to the project learning so eloquently imagined by Carleton Washburne, then Superintendent of the Winnetka Public Schools at the time of the progressive education movement. The concept of the workroom capitalized on the hopes and dreams of the teachers and children at the same time being a very functional and practical space for the children. Partial projects, beginnings of plans, supplements to the curriculum, extensions of the curriculum could be contained - and remain (that’s key) in this space. The notion of having a space designated for ongoing projects so as not to interrupt the space needed for whole group lessons was nothing less than brilliant.

Here are just a few of the many and extraordinary uses of this space:

In the Kindergarten classrooms, the workroom is referred to as the "Let’s Pretend Room" and throughout the year it has many identities, including "The Post Office", the "House corner", the "Ice Skating Rink" (one of my favorites), a "Haunted House", the "Rain Forest", the "Animal Hospital", the "Solar System", a "Library".

Among the many uses of this space in grades 1 through 4, I’ve seen the workroom transformed into …

  • a classroom store
  • Snack Time Theatre
  • a Museum
  • an Art studio
  • a Science Lab
  • a Technology Lab
  • a Living Room
  • a Study Room
  • a Block Room
  • a Geography lab depicting the four regions - the Wetlands, the Rainforest, the Prairie, the Desert

And the list goes on…

In "The Boss of the Whole School", a behind-the-scenes look at how principals think, I point out that principals’ energies are completely absorbed by urgent daily demands. So while we’re madly walking around that building - solving problems, managing, juggling schedules, we are intensely aware of how our buildings work with us or against us.

So, getting back to the workroom, this modest space even manages to anticipate a principal’s needs. A principal’s visit to a classroom can be an unnecessarily intrusive event. Depending on where that classroom door is located, a principal’s entrance - especially if you have visiting parents or others accompanying you -  can be met with many sets of eyes upon you and a somewhat anxious teacher awaiting confirmation of the purpose of your visit. The location of the workroom, and its adjacency to the classroom door allows a principal (and visitors) the opportunity to slip into the classroom easily, not intrude on the lesson or the class discussion, and have a place to stand while he/she is observing the class, being there but not in a prominent way. Such a simple idea, but it’s subtle details like this that make a big difference.

The real marvel of this workroom is that for almost 70 years, teachers and children have consistently used this space for essentially the same purposes - to extend the curriculum by imagining and engaging in project-based learning. There is no teacher’s manual that says "complete this project in this space"; the space itself draws the children in with its promise of possibilities. The benefits to the children and teachers are obvious. In addition, providing a space to have these possibilities available - this symbol of project learning - provides the parents and community with a vision of the school as a positive and liberating place for our children to experience.

DesignShare:  In your book, The Boss of the Whole School, you described the ritual of walking the hallways in the morning and picking up on the often overlooked rituals that make a school.  You also briefly touched upon the experiences of visitors (architects, planners, educators, etc.) walking into Crow Island for the first time.  From your perspective, what struck them as being most inspiring when they first stepped foot onto the campus, walked the halls, explored?

Beth’s reply: 

I remember that the majority of visitors (architects, educators, new parents) are first struck by the modern look of the building despite its age. "HOW old did you say this building is?" was probably the most often heard, first question of visitors. They couldn’t believe that this school opened in 1940. It still has that modern look to it and so logically they thought the building was newer. The wide open spaces and windows…the natural light…skylights….size and configuration of classroom space…the awe of the auditorium…scaled benches…..All of these features contributed to an overall feeling tone of the building - welcoming, thoughtful, easy-going, and interesting.

I did note a difference, however, in the observational style of the visitors depending on whether the visitor was an educator or an architect. Architects examine the building in a more solitary, reflective manner. They note the more subtle features - a particular use of material, a rounded brick edging, a pool of light from the skylight overhead.  They sketch, they stop and take long looks, take a picture, and continue to observe how the space is used by the children.

Teacher visitors observe each space through a curriculum lens. They note the space - quickly assess its possibilities with regard to the instructional program - and take some time to affirm their own instructional decisions and choices through conversation with their colleagues. The educator visitors, feeling very at ease in a school environment, tended to chat with each other and the teachers about their observations. At the same time I can see that they are challenged by the space. Its design is so qualitatively liberating as compared to what they’ve experienced that it prompts a deeper consideration of curricular possibilities. Teachers have very little time for this kind of conversation in their schools and so it is a precious opportunity and one that they deeply appreciate.

DesignShare: What are the first 5 words or phrases that immediately come to mind when you reflect upon the architecture and design of Crow Island?  In what way do these words/phrases be of value to you when sitting down to talk with a team of school designers?

Beth’s reply:

When I think of ways to describe Crow Island, I find that the words or phrases I use apply to both the philosophy and instructional program as well as the design of the school. I think that gets back to that all-important initial planning conversations between the educator and architect. Okay - 5 phrases. Here goes….

• Crow Island is provocative:  The design makes you think. It’s magnificently subtle and still it stimulates the imagination and it never says "no" to possibilities. There are design gems in that building that wait to be discovered each year by new teachers and their students. "How will we use the workroom?" Hmmmmm. We could… " A skylight in my classroom? Hmmmm. We could…" " A council ring just outside our classroom? Hmmm… We could ……"

• Crow Island is timeless:  I’m chuckling as I write this because we’ve had such problems with the automated clock system at the school that many folks in the know reference "Crow Island time" as a distinct time zone. But kidding aside, Crow Island really does have its own time zone in terms of design. It’s original and doesn’t need accessorizing. Dressed in natural light, rose-colored common brick, ponderosa pine, and a flippant clock tower, Crow Island still struts the runway of school design to continuing applause.

• Crow Island is progressive: A quote from Carleton Washburne (Sup’t of Winnetka Public Schools when Crow Island was built)…"The most important feature of the Crow Island School is that it is the architectural expression of an educational philosophy, which in Winnetka is essentially the philosophy of progressive education……it recognizes the child’s need for physical health, emotional and social adjustment, self-expression and the development of special aptitudes, and the mastery of the useful parts of reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography and science." (1941)

• Crow Island is trustworthy and reliable: You can rely on the design of Crow Island to carry out its purpose and mission to the fullest. It’s a design that doesn’t forget its purpose or lose focus. Rather, it repeats the signature message of "this building is for children" with enormous thoughtfulness and care. It is a building that is distinctively child-centered and humane.

• Crow Island makes sense and is "sense-making": The design of the school is clear to children. Things are where they’re supposed to be and that’s helpful when you’re 6 or 7 years old. Children easily navigate the building with an authentic purposefulness and assuredness in their gait. The design of Crow Island anticipates their childhood needs and dispositions. It facilitates their social and emotional interests and it enhances their active imaginations. What more could you ask for?

DesignShare:  When you hear the words "school" and classrooms, what immediately comes to mind.  In contrast, when you hear the phrase "learning environments", what changes for you?

Beth’s reply:

I immediately think of a quote (John Goodlad’s, I believe).. "A good school is a collection of good classrooms." Goodlad’s lens on this issue, i.e. "what’s a good school" is probably more metaphorical; however, his words in this particular quote bring traditional images to mind. Language is a powerful tool. The words "school" and  "classroom" bring to mind images of desks, chairs, chalkboard, teacher, students…spaces with a pre-determined and self-contained purpose.

The phrase "learning environments", awakens different images. For me, this phrase includes classrooms but other spaces as well. It prompts me to consider ALL of the learning opportunities that are offered within that traditional "school", i.e. to extend my notion of learning beyond the self-contained classroom if only to include the multitude of specialized learning settings even within that school (Art, Music, Physical Education, Technology, Project Learning, Support Learning…) and then beyond the confines of the school building into the community.

Learning environments makes us stop and think a bit about what we mean when we talk about "learning"- and what spaces are compatible with that type of engagement - whether in the school building or outside of it. In that way it opens up the notion of "classroom" to larger purposes - to different purposes. It refocuses classroom as an opportunity to learn possibly in the absence of a desk or a chair or a chalkboard, or (heaven forbid) - a teacher. Learning environment is space with an open purpose.

For me, the words "school" and"classroom" convey the idea of "I must fit into it" whereas the phrase "learning environment" has more of a "it will fit itself to me" feel to it.

DesignShare:  Considering the profound reputation of Crow Island in the school design community, the vast majority of schools designed and built seem to overlook some clear lessons your school defined decades ago. Why do you think Crow Island still stands out as such a unique environment after so many years of study and exploration?

Beth’s reply:

This is a really good question. We are always searching for that secret ingredient. Whether educator or architect, we hope to simplify our quest for "the best" by discovering those key ingredients and replicating them in current projects. Countless studies, dissertations, fellowships, and observations have documented Crow Island’s design excellence. So what IS IT about Crow Island that merits such praise and legendary status?

To borrow another science metaphor, Crow Island may be considered to be a kind of "school-design-genome project". In this school, there are countless design features, materials, and an educational philosophy, ideas - all linked together to create a place - a purposeful environment for learning. Although each element has individual merit as a single unit, it’s really how all these elements are linked that is critical to understanding the enduring success of a school.

We all know that you can walk into two different schools - each one having the same grade configuration - each one having a similar overall design - each one located in a similar socio-economic setting and each one with excellent achievement markers - and yet we experience two entirely different first impressions of these schools. Both schools are considered to be excellent on multiple measures - but they feel different. Why? We hypothesize about the factors that make the difference - a particular leadership style, the staff’s collaborative spirit, a particular bond between this school and its parents.

In the end, we might conclude that in the memorable schools there are unseen linkages…..behind-the-scenes scaffolding and planning and anticipation -  that account for the differences. It’s no single factor; rather it’s the timing and sequencing and staging of many factors. Yes, we tend to consolidate all of this and say, "Well, that’s leadership." But we should probably step back a bit to appreciate the unique contributions of the many components. I believe that the design of the school is one of those unique contributions - and a mighty one -  that makes a difference in the school lives of children. And it’s the linkage of the design to everything else that is happening in that school that makes the difference.

Crow Island has an internalized and embedded beauty and honesty that is inextricably bound to the humane education that takes place in that learning environment and that bonding of design and philosophy is probably its real secret ingredient. Before the ideas flourished, the planning conversations between educator and architect established the dimensions of the launch pad for what became Crow Island School. These conversations served as the all important linkage between the school’s design and the school’s purpose. The creative and productive exchange of ideas and thought between Carleton Washburne (then Superintendent of Schools) and the collaborative architectural teaming of Perkins & Will and the Saarinens is the real secret behind Crow Island’s legend.

Crow Island School is all about childhood. Its main lesson that should not be overlooked is that the needs of children will always be the most deeply valued and valid foundation for genuine school design. It’s true that in these past six decades, we’ve certainly expanded our knowledge sources of evidence about our understandings of childhood. However, the underlying truth of that initial effort that gave life to Crow Island cannot be denied nor should it ever be ignored.

To get in touch with Dr. Beth Hebert and learn more about her perspectives and writing, please email her at

July 31st, 2006

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