Life Cycle of Learning
Over the course of my design career, I’ve been engaged in collaborative planning and programming processes to help determine needs for “the future” in several school districts across the country. I put “the future” in quotation marks deliberately as it begs some important questions. What is “the future?” How do we provide learning environments that support “it” and how long will “it” last? The answers we uncover will define the life cycle of a community’s learning environments.
First, let’s explore facilities that can support the future. We categorize school facilities into levels, or tiers, of spaces. With each level, the spaces are designed to support greater differentiation in teaching and learning. Tier 0, or the ability to provide shelter for school, is the most basic level. This includes what we call warm, safe and dry classrooms and satisfies fundamental needs. Tier 1, or formal instructional spaces led by teachers, is most closely associated with what we know as a traditional classroom designed with the industrial model of learning in mind. Tier 2, or a more collaborative instructional space both led by teachers and students in groups, is more specialized towards a curriculum and allows for instructional settings to be created within each learning environment (note that I didn’t call it a classroom).
At the highest level, Tier 3 facilities incorporate individualized instructional settings and allow for a full expression of a school’s pedagogy. In Tier 3 facilities, teachers and students have the freedom to use the facility as the lesson requires. For instance, Algebra may begin in room 101, but after a brief introduction may shift to the STEM lab or to small group spaces like think tanks or a presentation space where students can Skype with mentors around the globe. The facility is as much about exploration as the curriculum is.
Ultimately, the vision of the district, its enrollment patterns, the bell schedule (or lack thereof) and elective offerings determine the blend of the tiers and spaces. A 21st Century high school could conceivably have multiple tiers incorporated within a single facility.
Second, let’s examine how long a facility can be expected to last into the future. The investment made by the school community must stand the test of time in order to maximize value. The instructional vision of the district and the administrative variables above will determine the life cycle. An appropriate plan for one district may be to incorporate a transition period into the design that allows for both professional development and curriculum to meet the vision while another district may use the facility as a catalyst for change. Any facility transition period should be accompanied by a floor plan illustrating how the interior of a building may change over time as collaboration grows or advance study courses become available to students.
We use the terminology “five year wall” or “ten year wall” to describe the change graphically. As the five year milestone approaches, the district plans the necessary minor renovations since the major systems designed originally anticipated the change. Depending upon funding model, the renovation costs may need to be planned in advance.
As districts contemplate capital improvements, they may not see our services or design thinking as an opportunity to add structure to their instructional vision. However, once we begin our process and create a common understanding of what we can really do to connect the dots, not just as architects but as experts, the conversation blossoms. In the end, our clients fully understand that the life cycle of a school’s structure and infrastructure is more than mere mathematics when learning is involved.