Designing Spaces for Future Focused Schools

Creating learning spaces where students can effectively collaborate has become ever more important as schools focus on developing this life time skill seen as key to effective participation in both the workplace and society.

Using physical models to explore layouts is an effective way of having a conversation about the possibilities of a learning environment. (left to right) Lene Jensby Lang, Thorbjørn Bergquist, Mark Pratt, Gary Spracklen, Michál Cohen

We tested this with a design challenge in a one-day workshop. Here is what happened…

Renewing school learning spaces

It is perhaps not as easy as we assume to imagine how to transform a traditional school building into one that is more responsive to the changing pedagogical needs. An Italian researcher, Maria Fianchini, has recently published a book on a research project she ran on how to address innovation in learning spaces in existing school buildings. Here she describes the research project.

The book“Renewing middle school facilities”presents the outcomes of “Back To School”, a research project funded by the DAStU – Department of Architecture and Urban Studies of the Politecnico di Milano. The research focused innovation in existing learning environments, and in particular in lower secondary education. This work, which included a fieldwork survey with five case studies, turned out to be an intense self-learning opportunity for all participants, based on an in-depth exchange of ideas and impressions, from different perspectives.

One of the main findings highlighted is that the traditional classroom still is the most used space in schools, and always with the same traditional arrangement – desks lined up in rows and with little room for school bags. However, that is not so much on an educational choice, but rather on a lack of space and/or a state of immobility that characterises large portions of the schools. 

It became clear during the research that students and teachers are looking towards the new international and innovative pedagogical models, and different ways of conceiving a school that are more participatory. However, the research illustrated how difficult teachers find it to imagine how to physically transform existing learning spaces (and thus change their use), the extent of help they need; as if a truly different future can only be conceived in a building that is actually new.

In this sense, the entry of external experts into a school (as well as the dissemination of best practice) could help those concerned in discovering new possibilities and ways of breaking away from codified habits.

Maria Fianchini, November 2019

Maria Fianchini is Associate Professor of Architectural Technology at the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies of the Politecnico di Milano.

Fianchini, M. (Ed.) “Renewing Middle School Facilities”, Springer 2020

Planning Learning Spaces

There are essentially two ways of educating people, says Herman Hertzberger. One is to tell them how the world works, and the other is to let people develop the capacity for thinking for themselves. The learning environment both pedagogically speaking and in terms of space needs to respond to the latter.

“Planning Learning Spaces” by Terry White and Murray Hudson (to be published 19th October) will provide much needed guidance on designing schools. They were gracious and generous in their invitations for contributions from a range of educators and designers involved in creating learning environments. The result is a practical guide for all those involved and interested in creating better learning environments.

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Innovation in learning environments

Innovation is perhaps a slippery word. It often assumes something new which implies something never done before. Is there much that’s never been done before? Indeed, have we forgotten something that was done and at some point in the future will be ‘rediscovered’ and presented as innovative?

Neumagen School near Trier, Germany; 200 AD (Roman School). Many in higher education, if not schools today can relate to this scene.
Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

For example, in Athens of 400BC at Aristotle’s Lyceum, excavated about 20 years ago, the master would tend to teach while walking with his students.

We tend to think that the design of the learning environments that we see today have been recent innovations – or at least started in the 18th century and 19th century along with the development of mass education.

From the second century AD a Roman school (for those who could afford it) – for the Romans the three core subjects were science, maths and rhetoric – the small group seminar is recognisable today.

A little more recent the University of Bologna in the 13th century. Now we’ve got guess what? Students lined up in rows facing the ‘master’. This was happening 600 years before the time most people thought that it was invented, although of course the model was well suited to the new demands of education during industrialisation. And of course here we are 800 years later!

So, what do we really mean by innovation in learning environments? And to what purpose is the ‘innovation’ directed?

The 1960s saw the development of prototype schools such as the School Construction Systems Development prototype schools. In some ways familiar to some of the developments that we see today but in a context that was much different. The main problem with these was that the teachers had not been trained to teach in such spaces, and as they were not involved in the design process didn’t feel much incentive to live up to the concept which might have been a nice idea, but failed in its reality.

So, the focus on innovation shifted in the 1970s and 80s away from product (the design of the building as a product) to process (how the design is created) with calls for a permanent dialogue between education experts, policy-makers architects and other stakeholders.

More recently the innovations that we often hear about have been product focused, but I think the truly innovative environments are those that recognise the interplay between space, and user through time.

If there is any hope that today’s attempts to radically innovate school design will be more successful than their predecessors, it lies in different and significantly more inclusive design processes.

Education systems around the world are having to address a range of issues with their current school building stock from increasing school age populations in some areas, a building stock that is often not longer fit for purpose – whether it is the fabric that has degraded or simply not enough space of the right type – as well as emerging technologies.

An important message from two reviews that I was involved in with the OECD, one on Portugal’s secondary school building modernisation programme and the other for Mexico indicated that for true modernisation more is needed than just improvements to the physical infrastructure… Teachers need to be engaged too.

This debate has been played out in the context of the recognition that approaches to teaching and learning are changing, our understanding of how students learn has developed but so too what students need to learn to be effective contributors to society. Education systems are expected to help students develop ways of thinking – creativity, critical thinking, problem solving; ways of working – collaboration, teamwork, adaptability, leadership; and ways of living together – curiosity, empathy, self-esteem, resilience.

To support this an effective learning environment should encourage social interaction – learning is a social process; be learner centred and inclusive; reflect patterns of learning and enable collaboration.

Education is a system – so all of the parts are connected, something that is often forgotten or not even recognised; and the learning environment in the broader sense that includes the curriculum etc as well as the narrower sense of the physical learning environment impact on each other.

However, the role that the physical environment plays in education from a passive back-drop in which the activities of teaching and learning takes place, to one that directly affects how learners learn is still much debated and a focus for exploration, and we shall hear more about some of these areas of investigation today.

Whatever the case, the buildings and spaces in which education happens should be supportive of the activities take place in them, not the drivers. What those activities are and how and importantly when they are carried out are the drivers.

To get a deep understanding of these processes means that education has to be involved in the conversation to drive the purpose of the design.

The Act of Learning is not Divorced from Place

West Thornton Primary Academy, London An inspiring environment, but not necessarily conventional

How our children learn is fundamental to both their success and to a society’s success in the future. It is often said that children in school today are being taught for jobs that do not yet exist. But this suggests an expectation that students leaving school would go to specific well-defined jobs, just as they might have done when they left school at say during the beginning of the 20th Century. However, education and being at school is surely more than that.

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Does Your School Work for You?

OECD School User Survey

Five years ago the OECD started work on a set of survey instruments to help evaluate school buildings. The result is the OECD School User Survey which aims to give voice to students, teachers and schools on how their buildings work for them. 

In an OECD context it is an unusual survey because it is at school level rather than at national level which so many of the OECD surveys are.

In developing the OECD School User Survey we saw it as being complementary to other surveys which gather performance data from school buildings such as on acoustics, lighting, air quality and temperature; and student performance data collected in various ways. Therefore this survey has been designed to be used alongside these existing approaches rather than provide yet another version of them.

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Universities: the power behind the throne of the regional economy

With or without “Brexit” the higher education scene globally is changing. The problem that we all face whether we live in the UK or elsewhere is that the impact of change is difficult to predict, yet the changes could have profound implications on how we use or develop higher education learning environments.

Architectural design in one way is a scenario of the future. This is from the end of year show at the Department of Architecture, University of Westminster



A way to explore this is through the use of scenarios – a sort of hypothetical alternative reality.

Here is a scenario to think about. It is based on one I developed for a project I was working on back in 2008 looking at the future of higher education:

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Intelligent Learning Environment

Can we describe what an intelligent modern learning environment should be like? By intelligent, I mean buildings that are designed to support teaching and learning and those who use them. I think that we can.

Stonefields School, Auckland, New Zealand

I have been  reflecting on how we encapsulate what a modern and intelligent learning environment should be like and thought I would share some broad brush criteria. To a large extent there are some linkages between them all, but it may be interesting to think about the relevance of each. They aren’t in a particular order and perhaps they could be thought of as different perspectives from which to challenge the space(s).

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How can teachers move from traditional to innovative learning environments?


What do we really know about how teachers can use the wonderful innovative learning environments being created for schools around the world?


Stonefields School, Auckland, New Zealand

Graduate researchers (architects, designers, educationalists) around the world are tackling issues such as this, but often in isolation. The ‘Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change’ (ILETC) project, based at the University of Melbourne, Australia, aims to bring this thinking together through its series of one-day ‘transitions’ symposia which this year will also be held outside Australia – in the UK (London) on 7th September and in the US (Grand Rapids, Michigan) on 14th September. The symposium in Melbourne will be on 2nd June. It will be interesting to learn where the research on this is at. Continue reading