There’s no doubt that education leaders have been forced to adapt their strategies, policies and facilities. Despite the closure of school buildings—in many cases for a full academic year—teaching and learning has continued virtually with hardly an interruption. There have been many challenges, but this experience also illuminates an important opportunity for education leaders: whole communities can truly thrive when schools are designed with flexibility and adaptability.
For years RATIO has been partnering with our K12 Education clients to create strategies and spaces that support 21st century learning. As the focus shifts from standardized, system-driven education to personalized, self-directed and active learning, schools have become more comfortable environments where people actually want to be. Diverse spaces, both indoors and out, inspire creativity, collaboration and problem-solving—valuable life skills that students carry with them long beyond their school years.
These and other design trends, which were already taking hold in K12 design prior to 2020, have been accelerated by recent uncertainty, but the end of the pandemic does not mean the uncertainty goes away. The opposite may even be true.
That said, here are ten ways to prepare your school for the future, no matter what it may bring.
1. Engage students and other stakeholders to develop culturally responsive designs.
Understanding the geography and geology of the site, the history of the community and its economic and social influences, and the dreams and aspirations of students, families and educators is a critical part of the design process that must be done early. The result is a stronger connection between people and place, and a sense of ownership and pride that boosts motivation to participate and preserve that connection.
2. Strengthen safety and security with a balance of openness and access control.
Creating a safe and secure environment is critical to putting students and teachers in the right frame of mind for learning. This not only provides protection from outside threats, but also reduces bullying and isolation that create barriers to learning and foster internal threats. Secured entrances are an important first step, while windows with views to the community offer natural light and air circulation as well as natural surveillance and transparency. Interior windows between classrooms and halls or lounges also promote social interaction as well as passive supervision.
3. Create a central commons that can flex for different needs at different times of day.
Cafeteria spaces have the potential to be one of the most versatile spaces in a school and should be centrally located and designed with the flexibility to service as a multipurpose educational commons when not being used for dining—creating a more cost-effective use of large and valuable real estate. As an assembly hall, a study space or lounge, the cafeteria can become the “living room” of the school and even serve the community after hours.
4. Offer breakout spaces that nurture collaboration skills and connection.
Research shows that comfortable and familiar spaces with a variety of seating types can spark creativity, boost engagement, and ready the mind to learn, yielding better educational outcomes. Ancillary spaces in corridors or central commons that are designed to accommodate a mix of activities will reinforce the notion that learning happens everywhere, not just in traditional classrooms. These spaces become the building blocks of collaborative communities and empower students to emphasize their individual strengths and learn from the strengths of others, preparing them for the kind of teamwork they’ll encounter as adults.
5. Think flexibility first in classrooms and beyond.
Using furniture and equipment that is lightweight and mobile, teachers and students need to be able to adapt the learning environment to the lesson at hand or to individual students’ preferred style of learning. A variety of furniture, including soft seating, paired with writable walls and pin-up space, interactive monitors and mobile devices, as well as operable glazed walls and garage-style doors allow spaces—and the activities they host—to expand and contract.
6. Integrate technology everywhere, served by a central media hub for in-depth exploration.
Learning in the 21st century often applies the function and flexibility of media centers that have existed for years and replicates the model throughout the entire school building. Yet, media centers still play a critical role as the technology hub and the “home room” of media specialists who are a valuable resource for teachers and students eager to integrate technology into the curriculum. Today’s media centers are often designed like makerspaces or production labs that accommodate a variety of activities including large group instruction, small group teamwork, and individual study.
7. Go outside the school’s walls to boost flexibility, health and wellness.
Outdoor learning environments provide numerous advantages that can increase physical and mental health, performance and productivity for students and staff. They also offer a cost-effective way to extend the footprint of the learning environment and support multiple learning styles with natural ventilation, daylight, and a connection to nature that is more expensive to mimic indoors, but critical to the school’s ability to flex and adapt to evolving needs.
Looking for more insights and considerations? Our outdoor learning environment experts put together a whitepaper.
8. Show a commitment and achieve long-term cost savings through sustainable design.
Sustainable design offers a tangible way to demonstrate a long-term investment in students, staff and the whole community. Visible elements such as solar panels, rainwater cisterns, rain gardens, electric vehicle charging stations and recycling programs serve as important evidence of this investment, and ultimately save operational costs over time through reductions in energy and water consumption. Students learn, too, about the impact their school can have on people and planet.
9. Bring career programs front-and-center.
As today’s careers are increasingly tech-driven and STEAM-focused, spaces that are dedicated to career and technical education (CTE) deserve a more prominent, visible location than the messy, noisy, back-of-house shops of decades past. Locating CTE spaces adjacent to the school’s central commons with large windows puts them on full display and celebrates the school as a bridge to the community’s future.
10. Nurture community connections to strengthen student readiness.
Collaborations with local business leaders and cooperative learning programs can improve the viability and relevance of educational curriculum and strengthen the bond between the school and its community. A natural extension to project-based learning, local experts can provide insights into rapidly evolving trends and technologies, ensuring students are ready for the world beyond school—synergies that will benefit the entire community with a well-educated workforce in the future.