August 20, 2002

Designing schools that work for all kids

  • What does effective educational design look like?
    Designing Schools

    There is no greater gift we give, nor challenge we face, than to ensure all young people gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to build meaningful lives.

    Yet despite widespread interest in educational reform, several students remain anonymous and unsuccessful in many of our schools. High school graduation rates for the general population are just 75 percent — only 50 percent for African Americans and Latinos.

    "We must design schools that are flexible and convertible enough to support a range of educational program models, including those that we have not yet identified. "

    And while college graduates earn 70 percent more than high school graduates, only 6 percent of African Americans and Latinos earn a four-year degree. Given such statistics, many support sweeping educational reform. We say we want to build schools that work for all kids. What would it look like if we really meant it?

    Design teams must be encouraged to explore hard questions and think differently. Since we have all gone to school, we frequently reference our own experiences in the design process and make decisions about what is best for kids by referencing personal recollections. The pullback effect created by this nostalgia diminishes the likelihood of creating better learning situations for all.

    Arthur Shopenhauer’s words are particularly instructive on this point: “The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about what everybody has seen.”

    School facilities must be courageously evolutionary — not just astoundingly revolutionary. If school systems intend to build educational facilities to have a useful life of 20 to 30 years — and know that we more likely will occupy them for more than 50 — we cannot plan them around a single program model.

    Yet a discussion with any planning principal reveals how new schools quickly, within five years of opening, disclose their inflexibility for programs other than the planned model. (School buildings can actually inhibit implementation of good instruction with well-intentioned foci on specific program delivery models.)

    Given the rapidly changing nature of the world into which we will send our students, we must design school buildings that are “flexible and convertible” enough to support a range of educational program models, including those that we have not yet identified.

    Communities must become informed and willing to discover. We can begin by referencing research aimed at learning how information is acquired and processed in our minds.

    For instance, if brains process meaning before they process detail, it makes sense to involve students in more relevant and active learning experiences. If we recognize that attention spans are not unlimited, school designs might reflect more varied ecosystems that facilitate frequent movement and inquiry-based learning strategies.

    If we acknowledge that every brain is different and every brain processes information differently, we might design environments more conducive to individualized instruction, where learning occurs in the context of caring and personalization. If we know that emotional climates are critical to learning, positive relationships will be fostered, safety will rule the day, parents will be more involved, and size will actually matter.

    Educational research data persist in promoting the efficacy of designing smaller learning communities. Such data suggest:

    • Student attachment, persistence and performance are stronger, parents and community members are more satisfied, the environment for teaching professionals is better, and violence and absenteeism are reduced in small schools (Wasley, et. al., 2000).

    • Small schools reduce poverty’s power over student achievement. Researchers studying 13,600 schools in four widely divergent states (Georgia, Montana, Ohio, Texas) and found smaller schools cut poverty’s power rating by 20 percent to 70 percent - the lower the income of the community, the more student achievement is benefited by small schools (Howley, C. and Bickel, R., 2000)

    • A review of 103 studies revealed that interpersonal relations between and among students, teachers and administrators in small schools are more positive and that academic achievement is at least equal — and often superior — to that of large schools (Cotton, 1996).

    • References and more information available at

    We can, and should, use facilities planning processes to leverage school reform; yet we must realize “the building is not the change.” Buildings allow for change. Buildings can even encourage change. Yet absent the cultivation of new skills, understandings and commitments throughout the system’s stakeholders, we bend to homeostasis.

    One can observe with astounding regularity that adults make decisions about what is best for kids by referencing our past experiences. Communities considering school reform need help fighting the forces of nostalgic gravity in order to question whether proposed models serve all students well — or simply preserve the status quo.

    Just as coaches push athletes to levels of achievement they would not have been able to achieve on their own, enlightened consultants help us craft school designs that help all students achieve at high levels.

    Good consultants help us build capacity throughout the system, not just in the top levels of the organization. They help us build bridges between big ideas about education and actual practice. They support us in our commitment to change; especially when design processes conflict with the negotiations we have typically conducted with adults.

    As Linda Darling-Hammond, a researcher in Stanford University’s College of Education says, “The redesign task is defined as one of transforming the education system rather than merely getting schools to do better at what they have always done.”

    Transformative design processes make some uncomfortable because they require suspension of judgment and a commitment to look beyond easy answers. Yet such work is some of the most exciting in education today.

    Our focus should be to rethink traditional educational facilities and program planning processes in order to meet current and future needs of all learners. Remaining relentless in our exploration of what’s possible to help every student achieve at high levels, we must push beyond the ways we have typically considered school design.

    Building schools that work for all kids. That’s what it would look like if we really meant it.

    Victoria Bergsagel is a principal at Designing Schools and works in higher education as an adjunct professor. As the director of educational design in a large school district, she led the development of educational programs and planning upon which the construction of new schools was based. Bergsagel will be a keynote speaker the American Institute of Architects’ Committee for Architecture in Education’s fall conference in Seattle on Sept. 19. She can be reached at

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