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August 1, 2019

At successful schools, learning happens everywhere

  • To make the most of their spaces, educators should understand how the design relates to their educational mission.
    NAC Architecture

    There are many schools of thought when it comes to designing K-12 facilities.

    Tillicum Middle School in Bellevue and Riverview Elementary School in Snohomish are examples of two approaches — both designed by NAC Architecture to reflect the intentions of our clients.

    Tillicum: a user’s guide

    Linking learning with meaningful experiences has been shown to significantly improve retention and increase student success. We can all remember the variety of places and contexts in which we have learned something meaningful. And chances are those places are as varied as we are. Successful schools and successful educators now embrace this simple truth — learning happens everywhere.

    Often called decentralized learning, this perspective seeks educational opportunities both inside and outside the classroom. A school building or campus can take advantage of site topography and nature to provide outdoor areas for engaging students through exploration and play. Introducing space for a garden lets students grow fruits and vegetables while studying the science of nutrition.

    Highlighting sustainability measures throughout the building, such as LED lighting or energy-use dashboards, raises awareness about environmental stewardship. Informal gathering spaces throughout the school can feature soft seating and writeable walls to invite spontaneous group work or problem solving.

    Photos by Ben Benschneider [enlarge]
    Classrooms at Riverview Elementary School connect seamlessly to shared learning commons, allowing all manner of activities to occur throughout the space with easy supervision.

    At the same time, great school design is a bit like the physical representation of potential energy. Fully activating new opportunities for learning requires a combination of educational understanding and cultural support mechanisms for the faculty. Even after a vigorous and inclusive process, it is unrealistic to assume that an entire school staff will comprehend the design intention without their own chance to learn about it.

    What if every school facility — just like any new appliance or gadget — came equipped with a user’s guide? Chock-full of information about reasons for the different spaces, each of the various technologies and systems and how all the parts work, it could serve as a reference tool for facilities staff and teachers to access the inner workings of their building and support their learning objectives.

    Last year, the Bellevue School District opened its new Tillicum Middle School. The building was designed as a “marketplace of learning,” organizing science, career and technical education, art, library and core classrooms around a flexible shared space. The scheme was selected by the design committee because it encourages collaboration, connects programs, and puts learning on display.

    A user’s guide, created and distributed to teachers and staff members, provides information on the design thinking behind the building’s layout, purpose of non-classroom spaces, and inspiration for the graphics and artwork throughout the school. Sustainability was a key design consideration, so the guide highlights sustainable building features as well.

    Window seating located throughout the classrooms and common spaces allows students to create a space within a space for learning.

    Riverview: making relationships

    Throughout the design of Riverview Elementary School in Snohomish, Principal Tammy Jones and her faculty spent time redefining their core values.

    Jones explained, “For Riverview, it’s simple: relationships — staff to parent, staff to staff, staff to student, student to student — are the foundation of everything we do. Therefore, we need both a culture and a building that supports all types of relationships.”

    The old building lacked the spatial framework to usher in new relationships and learning opportunities, so the concept that “learning happens everywhere” became a driving force when planning for the replacement school began in 2008.

    “Successful relationships aren’t stagnant,” said Jones, “so the building shouldn’t be either.”

    Spaces inside and outside the classroom intentionally support all types of learning. Within the classroom, considerable thought was given to establishing more opportunities for varied activities. Built-in window seats, mobile bookshelves and operable partitions between half of the classrooms diversify space types, sizes and potential activities.

    Large classroom windows look into the shared learning commons and connect groups of four classrooms. In hallways and the library, nooks allow one to two students either to work independently or receive personalized instruction from educators.

    Outside, a meandering path with informational signage and a large overlook turn the on-site wetland into a unique learning space. Amphitheater seating allows teachers to take instruction outdoors. The architecture, both indoors and out, serves as the connective tissue linking educational activities and facilitating decentralized learning.

    The staff of Riverview Elementary moved into their new school in 2011. Jones continues to lead her team on a journey of cultural definition and reinforcement through daily, periodic, and annual activities.

    Every year as new staff join and continuing staff prepare for a new school year, they discuss the “why” behind what they do as much, if not more, than how to execute the “why.”

    Kids spend the first three days of school in a multi-grade “family” group of 25 to 30 students participating in activities that reinforce the school’s five cultural pillars. Students then continue to meet as a family once a month for the remainder of the year. This helps to integrate new and returning students across all grades, and further reinforces the school’s foundation of relationship-building.

    In lieu of traditional staff meetings, Riverview staff spends the first 10 minutes of the day in a standing staff-gathering where they focus on several things: what does the staff need to know today? Students who have done really well are recognized to make sure that other teachers can congratulate that student sometime during the day, and they also discuss any students that are struggling and have a staff member who is not their regular teacher reach out to that student.

    School buildings will easily outlast the tenure of any particular leader or teacher at that school. Therefore, it is important from the first day to the last for educators to understand the intent behind their school, how the architecture relates to their educational mission and how to create synergy between their educational activities and their school’s design.

    Truly understanding and living a school’s educational mission is not something that happens in a vacuum. Deliberate training, open dialogue and ongoing evaluation is necessary.

    Recurring cultural activities and a clear purpose, such as what Jones has achieved at Riverview Elementary, allow educators and students alike to live the “why” behind their mission.

    And it takes an equally dedicated design team to embrace a school’s educational mission and translate that into a learning environment that supports a culture of collaboration. Creating spaces that allow learning to happen everywhere is just the beginning; the key is to design them in a way that communicates this culture to students and staff.

    That’s why documents such as a thoughtful user’s guide that lives on with the building can be instrumental in creating the baseline knowledge and understanding of how the building can support learning.

    Riverview Elementary School is thriving still, more than a decade after design for the new school began (and eight years after opening the new building). The mixture of thoughtful, learner-centered architecture coupled with a strong culture demonstrates that learning happening in all places and contexts really does work.

    Matt Rumbaugh is a principal at NAC Architecture.

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