Tuesday, December 05, 2006

If You Build It, They Will Learn

In response to the 2020 Vision presentation, I received an email from Cindi Hopkins, Executive Director of Instruction for Bloomfield Hills Schools in Michigan.
If you were designing a new high school today - $75,000,000 and a size of 275,000 square feet for about 1,000 kids, how would you use your thoughts to design the school differently than the one you have today?
Bloomfield Hills is hoping to build two new high schools - Andover and Lahser - that would open in 2010 if the voters approve.

Now, I have lots of ideas (big surprise) that I will share with her, but I asked her if I could blog about it so that I could solicit ideas from a few more folks. It would be great if not only students and staff at my high school gave some suggestions in the comments, but also if all you other folks out there who read The Fischbowl (dozens and dozens of you) chimed in as well. And I would boldly suggest that if any of the more prominent edubloggers happen to read this, this might be worthy of a post of your own. Here is a school district that is building the high school of tomorrow (literally) and wants our input. I think we should take advantage of that and offer up our best thinking about what high school should look like in the 21st century (well, at least in the 2010's).

While I'm still thinking about the ideas that I'm going to send to Cindi, I will emphasize - as I'm sure many of you will - that the most important decisions about the schools aren't necessarily related to building design. They would be about curriculum (however you define that), and mission, and goals, and expectations, and mindset, and hiring the right staff, and setting a vision with and for the students. The most important decisions will revolve around students taking charge of their own learning, being passionately involved in their own learning, and making a difference in the lives of those around them - as well as those (physically) far away from them. About being adaptable and flexible and knowing how to learn how to learn (all that "flat world" stuff). It will not be about "education as usual." In my opinion, all those things will far outweigh just about any building design choices. And those will be the hardest choices to make and implement.

Having said that, Cindi indicates those things are all being talked about in her district and she is asking for building design suggestions that will help support that type of education, "a space that can facilitate flexible, independent learning," so I will give some of those as well. You are welcome to submit comments of either type (learning design or building design) and Cindi will be following along. Let's reward her initiative in asking these questions and give her some really good advice.


  1. In Daniel Pink's _A Whole New Mind_, he suggests that "design" is very important for right and left brain thinkers. I agree. If I were designing a new school, I would design some "creative spaces" where small groups of people can meet and discuss and learn. I would also encourage round tables and chairs that roll. Having a chair that rolls and turns increases creativity. As far as the buildings, and most especially the library, there needs to be large spaces where there is flexibility of space built in. There is a need for large group meetings and small group meetings and you can't have this if there is a library that is broken up by walls or circulation desks or banks of computers sitting in the middle of the room. So, overall, large spaces which can be re-arranged for a variety of uses is the key to an effective library space.


  2. Hi Karl,

    Loved 2020 Vision! I agree with what Rob says about the importance of design. I've been round a fair few schools and it seems to me that the academically less able ones tend to be the ones that have problem areas due to poor design.

    I think the key to a successful school building is flexibility - to allow the teachers to teach in a way that suits them, rather than being constrained by what they've got. For example my current classroom is very small and has an door leading to another classroom. Because of the lack of space and the potential for disturbing the class next door I cannot do as much active learning as I'd like.

    There needs to be ownership of classrooms so that they are kept in a reasonable state, but there also needs to be additional capacity and different kinds of rooms so that teachers have the ability to vary their lessons and mix things up a little bit! :-)

    Doug Belshaw

  3. I agree wtih Rob that Whole New Minde has many good ideas that relate to design.

    I also would like to recommend a fascinating article by Randall Fielding, Jeffery Lackney and
    Prakash Nair of DesignShare that appeared in Edutopia Magazine.


    It has some mind-bending ideas on redesigning classroom spaces as studios.

    I completely agree that in order to have these designs work that it would mean having a larger conversation within a campus about the purpose and structure of the classroom and teaching models, though!

    We are in the midst of redesigning our library to be a more flexible, Web 2.0 type of space, so I'll be following this thread for ideas.

    We are looking at bookstore models, and a library as community center and learning studio, for ideas.

    I also highly recommend articles on DesignShare for ideas, as well as a book on design which they have published.


    Thanks for sharing this thread of conversation and what a great way to model using blogs to share the conversation.

    Carolyn Foote


  4. Another vision to consider in design is the US Dept of Ed "School 2.0" website:


    Go beyond the walls - what technologies can be made available for students on buses? How do students collaborate outside the classroom? How do we leverage the next PDA/Cell/Camera phone?


  5. As a student currently enrolled in Arapahoe High School, I would like to add my personal ideas to the collaboration.

    One of the main things that I would like to see, as Doug Belshaw said, is a classroom for every teacher. Shared classrooms don’t seem as personal to students. Shared classrooms don’t allow the teacher’s personality to come through. When each teacher has his/her own classroom, the teachers seem more like everyday people and less authoritarian.

    I would also like to add that too many classrooms today lack windows. There are studies that show people are happier when natural light is present. Adding windows could make students more excited to learn because they are happier.

    Emily Lutz
    Class of 2010 Arapahoe High School

  6. You can find out more about the "Map of the Future" that Christian referred to in his comment at the KnowledgeWorks website. Or, if you are at Arapahoe, you can look at the printed copy of the map on my door.

  7. The mention of vista was a good point. Vista is going incredibly and senselessly expensive.

  8. Christian, Karl, and all--

    First, I apologize for my typos in my earlier post. I was so excited to find this discussion that my mind was moving faster than my fingers could!

    Second, thanks for all the great suggestions. I'm excited about following up on them.

    Have any of you read the article from the WSJ called "Legalized Cheating" from January 2006? The comment about cell phones reminded me of the article, which was about a school which basically began allowing cell phone and laptop use during tests rather than fight against the technology. The tests were structured to test application of knowledge rather than regurgitation. It was an interesting article.

  9. Great conversation! As someone who spends time in different school buildings all day, I echo Emily’s comments on the role of natural light. I know that when I spend the day in a dark school that is dominated by cafeteria-green colored cinder blocks, I walk out of there tired and, frankly, a little bit depressed. On the other hand, when coming out of the more contemporary buildings with more open space and natural light, I feel like I have more energy and am still fresh.

    Other ideas, in no particular order:

    Plenty of space to demonstrate student work—an in-house archive of student art, essays, computer animations, audio clips, video clips of big football games, rebuilt engines, etc. Yes, I supposed these could all be put on the web, but displaying students’ work, both digitally and tangibly, should be a pervasive concern.

    Do not group subject areas geographically—this only encourages academic provincialism. Rather, put the technical writing class next to autoshop, and the CAD class on the other side of that.

    Do not segregate administration. Administrators, including central administrators including superintendents, need to be close to the action and housed among the classrooms.

    I’m really intrigued by the concept of thin-client, Linux machines. Between open-source software and web-based applications, it’s becoming more feasible to serve student needs without Microsoft licensing.

    Lockers that make sense—has anybody watched these kids trying to jam their 40lb backpacks into a tall, skinny locker? By the way, why are backpacks getting so big? I guess it’s a sign of academic rigor.

    Large, open, inviting common areas. As well stated above, to allow for flexible class groupings and student demonstrations.

    Secure: fewer points of entry, monitored by professional security staff. I’m sorry to have to write this, but…

    and finally, student input in the design process.

  10. I definitely agree with the natural light idea. Cement walls and fluorescent lights just are not a happy combination. Bigger lockers would help too, or just smaller books. I always liked the idea of having books on cd and having a few actual books in the library in we want to do the work at school.

    Flexibility of space would be nice too. People are not meant to exist in rows all the time.

    Logical hallways layout would help too. Think about it, lockers and students stuffing backpacks into them on one side of a 15 foot wide hall, with 2000 other students trying to jam their way past. I know it sounds petty, but hallways make me feel like a sheep being herded. I've noticed that most teachers don't even try to brave the hallways in passing periods, I wonder why.

    A change in the desks would help too. Most of ours are the kind that the chairs are attached to the desk. I can't imagine a more uncomfortable setup. It forces us to sit straight, with our legs at the exact same angle all day. Also, there's the bar on the side making it nearly impossible to sit in arrangements other than rows. My history class is down near the art wing, it's in a computer room with large desks and office chairs. It's remarkable how much more relaxed and open the class is even with that minor change. It makes us more comfortable and more willing to participate. It makes us feel less like robots.

    And I know that this doesn't have to do with design, but imagine how much it would help if school started later. It's a scientific fact that our natural circadian rythym is affected by light. Waking up in the dark is just not healthy. And for those of us involved in activities, it's even worse. We arrive at school in the dark, and leave when it's dark. I've gone entire weeks without seeing daylight. That messes with my head. Day and night begin to blend together. When I wake up for zero hour, it feels as if I only just went to bed. It begins to feel as if I'm at school all the time, not a productivity aid. If I start the day exhausted, imagine how well I function by the time I get to math fifth hour.

  11. Having been involved in three separate library designs, and undergoing the transition from libraries as quiet spaces to libraries as collaborative spaces, I would add a few comments to this wonderful collection.

    Yes, light is very important--natural light especially. Security issues (sigh) may make clerestory windows and skylights even more attractive than regular windows for getting that natural light.

    Windows within the building (not viewing the outside) are powerful, as are unobstructed views (choose those half-height book shelves for the middle of the room spaces, not the tall ones). Not only do views of available spaces add a chance to use our distance vision, but they entice people into shared spaces -- people are presented with the visual opportunity to join a room or discussion space when they can easily see that they are active--some people will not go out of their way to walk into an alcove to peek into a doorway to find a collaborator.

    But, just as those wonderful, open, collaborative spaces should be a vital part of the pace of a school, quiet and comforting private spaces must be there for those students who cannot function at their best when in an environment that is full of visual and auditory stimulation.

    Our current school library (K-8) chose to deal with this mix of needs by having a research and collaborative area in the main part, a "technology studio" with computers at one end in a room that had a wall of windows between the studio and the library proper (with shades to pull for darkening the room for the projector, and the computers are on desks with wheels on the back legs--they are easily lifted at the front and rolled into new configurations). We have a "story time room" full of floor furniture and pillows, carpeted half -way up the walls, and with a 2d story clerestory adding a vaulted space on half its ceiling and windows way up there that bring in natural lighting.

    It has become a "safe space" and a treasured space, with older students envying the younger students having read-aloud in it, with preschool teachers using it as a cool-down spot in a pinch, with speech therapists popping in for one-on-one, and students who need quiet to concentrate really treasure it. I would suggest that you consciously plan your auditory and visual spaces to offer a variety of levels of stimulation--and don't forget those quiet spaces, too.

  12. Its never too late to respond, eh? Bloomfield Hills certainly needs to be thinking about how to create effective smaller learning communities even as they prepare to build quite large schools. That is a whole topic in and of itself...

    I agree with all that has been said throughout, especially those voiced by Christian ;)

    Clearly good schools start with curriculum, teaching, learning and other social factors. However, as we continue to think in an either/or way about space, we keep missing the point! ALL human activity takes place SOMEWHERE - why not create inspiring and creative environments that support all this stuff we want to accomplish in education?

    It starts by thinking like Rob, Carolyn and Doug. Its not too late for Bloomfield Hills. Let your voice be heard!