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August 30, 2018

See-through schools spark interest in learning

  • When students see their peers working on cool projects, they’re more likely to participate.
    Bassetti Architects


    When it comes to designing successful 21st-century learning environments, studies have shown that daylight-filled spaces improve student learning rates between 7 and 26 percent.

    But transparency isn’t limited to access to natural light — it also significantly impacts the user’s experience within. It can impact whole-child awareness, professional development and a stronger school culture in powerful ways.

    Hands-on learning

    As designers of educational facilities, we are seeing an increasing emphasis on providing students with hands-on learning opportunities and project-based lessons rooted in the real world. This trend arises from the knowledge that curiosity and the desire to learn are hardwired into all people.

    To honor this, the role of teachers is shifting from “sage on the stage” to one of guiding students through their learning pathway and helping them hone their skills as life-long learners. This type of educational delivery model encourages students to tinker, test, break and create.

    When charged with designing spaces that support a shift towards more hands-on learning opportunities for students, we have found transparency to be one of the most useful tools in our architect’s toolbox.

    Photos by Jeff Amram [enlarge]
    A transparent learning lab at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming.

    Students at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma can see from one end of the building to the other.

    More participation

    In our experience, transparency in school projects increases student interest and participation in hands-on learning opportunities, both during and after school.

    The renovation of Stewart Middle School in Tacoma embraced transparency as a key design theme.

    Users can literally look through the school from one end to another, generating an ethos of collaborative learning, while forming a sense of whole-school unity. Creative arts and science labs (da Vinci labs) have become the go-to spaces for class projects, as well as spaces for art displays, science experiments, media arts and performances. Relites line the Career Technical Education classrooms, performing double-duty as display cases where students can show off their work.

    Teachers note that students are beginning to participate in classes and activities they previously did not consider because of the school’s “learning-on-display” qualities. Robert Kroker teaches computer science and technology classes at Stewart and also heads up an after-school robotics club. Not only has he seen increased interest in his classes because of the school’s transparency, his robotics club has grown from 11 to 28 students since the school’s remodel.

    At Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming, transparency in classrooms, labs and flex areas spark student interest and support the curriculum. The school is organized around multi-floor learning communities made up of four career-based academies and a freshman academy.

    Project-based learning is accessible in highly transparent flex labs and science labs spread throughout the school. This visible learning and collaboration sparks student engagement and models critical skills for future success. Student interests pique involvement and student excitement ignites school pride.

    A boon for teachers

    Curiosity isn’t relegated only to students — teachers also become inquisitive when different modes of learning are on display.

    Ryan Booth, an instructional facilitator for Tacoma Public Schools, relishes the visibility in Stewart’s shared spaces and believes it has fostered a more innovative approach to teaching. According to him, teachers see activities in labs and flex areas and ask each other about them during lunch.

    “You can’t help but show everyone when you’re doing really cool stuff,” he said.

    Booth also noted that, at times, school modernization can be met with resistance from teachers. His job is to help with the transition and encourage the use of modified or new spaces. Because teachers are more inclined to use flex areas when they can see and supervise students, transparency becomes key to flex area success.

    Glass classroom doors at Stewart enable quick shifts in the teaching format from whole-class activities to small-group learning while teachers continue to oversee the work.

    Booth recalled that the glass doors were not liked at first, “about 60 percent of the staff [didn’t use the doors] but now about 90 percent of the staff use them all day, every day.”

    School culture and safety

    Transparency can also have positive impacts on school culture and student safety. On average, more than one out of every five students is bullied each year. Increasing the degree of transparency in schools affords more opportunities for passive supervision of common areas.

    A school with an open central commons lets teachers allow students to test their independence as they develop, all within the safety of caring adults who are standing by and supporting them. Students feel secure knowing that dependable adult eyes are watching, decreasing the possibility of bullying.

    In our experience, these emerging trends have shown significant positive impacts on learning environments. Transparency is a powerful tool for supporting lifelong learners and an amplified school culture.

    Humans are natural learners, and the spaces we design to support education can help spark the voracious curiosity of our children if we just offer them things about which to be curious.

    Jordan Kiel is a principal at Bassetti Architects and the project architect for Stewart Middle School in Tacoma.

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