The Real Shift in School Design

Epping part-01

Partial plan of Epping Views, by Gray Puksand Architects 2007. The corridors have been incorporated into the learning spaces. ©Gray Puksand

The biggest, and I think the real, shift in school design is the wider recognition that a variety of spaces in schools and indeed outside schools can be effectively used as settings for learning, that schools can use more than just a rectangular classroom box.

It is the recognition that is the shift rather than schools actually being designed this way. Although these days more schools have greater varieties of space, and use space in more innovative ways, we’ve been here before. In 1973 an OECD report “School Building: Today and Tomorrow” noted that school “Accommodation no longer consists of uniform classrooms, each equipped with thirty desks, a teacher’s dais and blackboard. Standard classrooms give way to a variety of space…Space for work in small groups, for discussions, for seminars; space for independent study and investigation…” perhaps, though there was less change in pedagogy. In many places though the experiments of open plan schools of he 1970s were unsuccessful, and standard classrooms became the focus again.

However, a survey I did in 2010 for what became an OECD publication “Designing for Education” showed trends in school building design moving towards providing environments with greater variation in the types, sizes and shapes of space to accommodate different activities and varied group sizes. Even so as that publication shows, it is not universal.

It shows how spaces traditionally conceived as having a single function such as the canteen are being more effectively used for other activities. Also, that spaces such as corridors, which would only be used periodically during the day for the movement of people, provide space for students to work on projects together. Designs that incorporate a greater variety of spaces are providing opportunity for teachers and students to adapt the environment to suit their particular needs.

However, the symbiotic relationship between pedagogy and building still has to be fully recognised. Indeed it still has to be fully measured and understood. Design decisions are still based on scant evidence.

I hope that the research project I am working on at the OECD: The Learning Environments Evaluation Programme will provide some more evidence. In this international project we are looking at the impact on both cognitive and non-cognitive student outcomes. More to come on that in a future post…

This post was based on a response I gave to an interview question posed by the organisers of the conference Building Future Learning Spaces (23 to 25 March in Dubai) that I will be speaking at. The question was: In your opinion, what has been the biggest shift in schools design?

Full details here of the conference Building Future Learning Spaces, 23 to 25 March in Dubai.

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