Educators and Architects Must Team up to Improve the Learning Environment
One of the most powerful opportunities to impact teaching, learning and behavior is the planning and design process. However, in a traditional school design process, high-level educators, superintendents, deputy superintendents, curriculum directors, teachers on special assignment and the like, are not always afforded the opportunity to be involved. Why not? BIG picture thinking, strategic leadership and vision should affect every learning environment in order to achieve behavioral objectives, academic outcomes and empower learners.
How can we ensure the right educators get involved at the right time?
Architects and educators share the belief that learning comes from relationships. It varies from district to district and project to project, but committing to a strong relationship of visionary district leaders to the design team is the best way to truly address educational goals during the planning process and in the final facility design.
In my experience, there are four broad steps that we as architects and planners can employ to enhance a pedagogical impact on the planning and design process:
- Get the right people to participate. Architects can work to involve district level educational leaders and administrators in facility design at a high level of perspective. The best way to realize a district’s educational goals is for visionary leaders to join the design team at the earliest stage on each project. This allows the educators to explore the idea that architecture is more than bricks and mortar. The most benefit occurs when all parties are attuned to each other’s roles early on, and this is important as everyone remains buoyant in trying to understand who can contribute to the process.
- Set the context. Architects can expand the influence of educators on the design of spaces, and broaden their understanding of the value of the built environment. Once a vision is articulated, we can use various tools such as tours of innovative buildings to enable the group to think beyond what they know and add value from such opportunities. This allows conversations to delve into controversial topics, as you as educators consider the ramifications of changing your environments to better align with your academic goals.
- Keep their interest. At first you may view your participation as extraneous to your core mission, but one technique is for the architect to start by demonstrating how intertwined built environments are with learning settings. It requires some work, but the goal is to keep diverse audiences engaged using terms, questions and ideas that they find important. If the architect is leading this process, they can step into the shoes of the educators, facilities people, etc. to ensure that the conversation stays relevant. It is also important to have fun. The architect can bring inventive exercises and frequent changes of settings to keep the group involved.
- Bring it together. After building consensus, conducting tours and relating to one another in imagining the future of your building(s), we, as architects, should bring it all together in a deliverable that is a spirited representation of the process and its findings. Ideally this deliverable is merely a snapshot of a conversation in progress.
I was fortunate enough to recently lead an in-depth visioning and educational specification process with Tacoma Public Schools. The involvement of the district’s educational leadership was integral in the process. Rather than just involving a few select individuals, we had representation from a huge range of district stakeholders, from deputy superintendents down to teachers on special assignment.
We expanded their mindset of educational spaces by touring a combination of schools and workplaces facilities – including future-thinkers like Google. The resulting conversations led by district leadership allowed the widespread audience of teachers, facility managers and staff to feel comfortable asking difficult questions during the design process. The final visioning document and ed spec will actively impact the district’s 10 elementary schools replaced by the current bond, and will influence future schools in years to come.
As educational pedagogy and delivery continues to evolve, we will continue to push design – with educational leaders at the table. Environments shape behavior. If the learning setting begins to look less like a classroom we hold in our memories from 30 or 40 years ago, it will be a sign that our efforts are slowly evolving along with our children.