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January/February 2013

What if there’s another way …
Educational settings to foster student success

by Jason Lembke and Douglas Ogurek

Jason Lembke (, director of K-12 education for Legat Architects Inc., Chicago, is a member of the Architecture Institute of America and a LEED accredited professional. Douglas Ogurek ( is communications manager at Legat and also a LEED accredited professional.

Students, parents, board members, teachers, and administrators participated in a recent high school facility master plan visioning session, where architects and planners shared research and discussed the link between classroom design and student performance.

One young man, an honors student, sat with his arms folded. “I don’t see the point of this,” he said. “I learned just fine in the classroom that you say is inadequate.”

No doubt that young man was telling the truth: he learned well, despite the classroom’s shortcomings.

What that student didn’t consider was the student behind him. Perhaps she had trouble absorbing the curriculum in the educationally inadequate classroom. Perhaps physical characteristics like lighting, seating, available workspace, size, acoustics and configuration did not afford her the same opportunity to shine.

This illustrates a basic truth that every educator and stakeholder should consider: districts cannot easily achieve the complex task of reaching more students by ignoring individual activity and ergonomic preferences within the classroom. As an influential resource in the learning process, the classroom itself can help teachers reach more students by better supporting educational tasks.

What if there is another way? What if the classroom set up for small group projects in first period algebra transforms into a space that supports peer presentation in the next? Imagine a classroom as flexible as a Broadway stage. The interchangeable settings waiting in the wings support the actors and activities on stage. Where would Romeo and Juliet be without the balcony in Verona? Likewise, classrooms equipped with interchangeable educational settings can better foster learning and student success.

Districts and educational planners now stand at a crossroads in terms of educational settings and maximizing students’ 21st century skill development. The challenge of creating well-suited learning environments is all the more impacted by contemporary methodologies like the flipped classroom, blended instruction, e-mentoring, peer-to-peer student support and a focus on evolving STEM curricula.  

Cure for the common classroom
Illinois districts continue to align their curricula with the Common Core State Standards, which reveal what to do, but not necessarily how to do it. Among the concepts gaining momentum are technology integration, group work, project-based learning, cross-curricular activities and one-to-one computing.

Many districts are responding by harnessing the latest technology and learning methods research to alter their delivery methods. The transformations in teaching and learning beckon for a transformation in the setting.

Education begins with engagement. A five-sided classroom layout gives shape to one district’s instructional model, which emphasizes inquiry-based, collaborative learning. A teacher positioned at the center has wireless control of screens positioned around the room. Engaged students have devices to contribute to the information on the screens.

A traditional four-sided classroom can employ similar technology in small group activity clusters. In both examples, the teacher can coach and mentor without dictating while flexible furniture allows for rapid reconfiguration.

The flipped classroom
As tablets and netbooks replace textbooks, and inquiry and problem solving overtake rote learning, the “flipped classroom” concept continues to challenge educators’ ability to use aging classrooms. In the “flip” paradigm, the student uses technology (e.g., home or school computer, tablets, DVD player, netbooks) for an introductory lesson — perhaps in place of homework — outside the classroom. Then she rejoins her classmates and mentor-teacher to explore the topic through a variety of physical classroom settings.

This year, Havana High School in Havana CUSD 126 became one of the nation’s first schools to “flip” every classroom.

“I think people in general learn by doing, not by being told how to do,” said Superintendent Patrick M. Twomey. “The flipped environment quadruples the amount of time students can actually do things with the content.”

Technology in the classroom also gives students more control over the pace at which they absorb material.

Michael B. Horn, executive director of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank for education and innovation, said technology offers an “exciting way to bolster student learning as it allows us to customize an education for each child according to his or her distinct learning needs.”

Many schools implementing or considering flipped classrooms face facility challenges: their classrooms are designed and furnished based on teaching styles popularized in the 1950s and ’60s. Rows of heavy, fixed desk and chair combinations are not well-suited to interactive learning models.

The emphasis on creating more success for more students affords little class time for moving around old furniture. Furthermore, such rooms in “original” configurations are likely underpowered to sustain charging stations for the demands of one-to-one computing and interactive whiteboards now prized for presentation and collaboration.

Makeover with benefits
America ’s Schoolhouse Council (ASC,, a consortium of educational planners and architects, created “Flip This Classroom” to design and implement learning environment renovations that suit a wider variety of tasks and individual comforts. The organization partners with districts to “flip” (i.e., make over) a classroom using ASC volunteer design and installation labor, and then assesses how the environmental changes impact student behavior, attitude, and performance.

“Flip This Classroom” validates the arguments that settings matter and that architecture goes beyond its basic purpose of creating a warm, safe and dry environment. Fine-tuning factors like acoustics, flooring, furniture, equipment, power, data and even wall colors may improve student performance and teacher retention:

• Teachers in a flipped reading lab classroom at Glen Crest Middle School, CCSD 89, Glen Ellyn, have identified a 15-percent increase in reading fluency among sixth graders.

• A flipped classroom at Van Cortlandtville Elementary School in Mohegan Lake, New York, led to an 8 percent increase in English language arts scoring, a 6 percent increase in math scoring and fewer disciplinary problems among fourth graders in the testing cohort.

During the last few years, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have dominated educational discussions across the country. Recently, however, many educators and think tanks have begun to advocate enhancing STEM to STEAM by adding an“A” or arts to the mix.

The arts and the creativity fostered, they argue, are integral to a collaborative and holistic course offering to increase learning.

Studies in a report by the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium reveal a correlation between arts training and improved math and reading scores. The consortium is part of The Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research through grants, publications and educational programs.

The Dana report also found that arts boost attention, cognition, working memory, and reading fluency — all critical for STEM programs and for students to excel.

 “Art and music require the use of both schematic and procedural knowledge,” eminent Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan said, “and, therefore, amplify a child’s understanding of self and the world.”

Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiology professor at Michigan State University, who researches and consults on creativity, said, “Nobel laureates in the sciences are 25 times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; 17 times as likely to be an artist; 12 times more likely to write poetry and literature.”

So why not schedule art and geometry classes together?

“Why does STEAM policy matter?” asked John Maeda, president of the Rohde Island School of Design. “It is how America will remain competitive, and remain the leader in innovation in the 21st century.”

How can schools foster co-curricular delivery? What course combinations are well-matched to sustain and inspire the future workforce within a school community?

As an example, a district in Nashville, Tennessee, home of guitar manufacturer Gibson USA and the country music capital of the world, might be inspired to enhance its STEM curriculum by adding the arts to nurture future innovation. With a multifaceted plan in place, the school schedules certain project activities in larger spaces. This enables courses like physics, industrial design, and art to come together in a space where students can collaborate and problem-solve.

Similarly, if another district has the resources to renovate in support of this emerging curriculum, it might engage its architect or planner in a dialogue to plan dedicated spaces that provide the maximum educational benefit for the minimum capital investment.

Challenge and opportunity
When a learning environment only acknowledges the needs and challenges of one group, others cannot gain the full benefits of the materials at hand. For today’s technology-savvy students, the road to the future is filled with many opportunities: constantly evolving technologies, global competitiveness and ever-expanding career opportunities, to name a few.

Districts and educational planners have a responsibility to ensure that every student goes on to be the successful scientist, engineer or artist that he or she has the potential to become. For some, this success will come despite their educational setting. But for others, the setting will play a key role in their development and success.

Architects, planners, educators and communities should partner to respond to the challenges of 21st century education. The time has come to transform “aging in place” classrooms into “flexible learning settings.”

Only by working together can we create settings that not only promote comfort and ergonomics, but that also give students and teachers the most time with content.

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