School design for and from students

Students have pretty clear ideas about what they want from school and we spend little to no time soliciting their ideas. In sharp contrast, the American Architectural Foundation’s (AAF) Great Schools By Design project took student voices very seriously. Their Student Voices on School Design report looks at hundreds of school design contest submissions from youth across the country. Students had to both write about their designs and create graphic representations. The data is rich in the presentation and the analysis is interesting and worth looking at (although the presentation is a little bit boring as a video, it can be read as a pdf as well).

The AAF had previously released a cross disciplinary report from their 2005 national summit on school design that asserted eight key principles…

Developed at the AAF National Summit on School Design, 2005

1. Design Schools to Support a Variety of Learning Styles

2. Enhance Learning by Integrating Technology

3. Foster a “Small School” Culture

4. Support Neighborhood Schools

5. Create Schools as Centers of Community

6. Engage the Public in the Planning Process

7. Make Healthy, Comfortable, & Flexible Learning Spaces

8. Consider Non-Traditional Options for School Facilities

The student data, however, shows that students themselves care about these issues to varying degrees. The findings from the student study showed clear priorities:

When asked, young people made the connection between education and the design of their school. Overwhelmingly, students said they believe more flexible facilities would support innovative teaching. With the words and phrases in their essays, they voted for daylighting and made clear they expect technology and “green” design to be integrated into the learning environment. And they insisted on connecting to the outdoors. They also linked the shape of a classroom to lessons learned in it.

In a visit early this week to a wealthy private school, I was struck by the natural light that filtered into almost every indoor space from raised ceiling and seemingly endless windows. In the hallways students lounged on couches (some nodding off with books in hand). In large, open common areas, students worked at tables or talked to friends.

And in the library, best of all, sunlight streamed in from a wall of windows behind library stacks that are set-off elegantly by staircases from the main reading room and are organized in tiered levels. The effect is a wide range of spaces for working and reading. It had the feel of a simplified college library with better light and better seating than most colleges have.

If we build schools that have open and useful spaces–spaces that empower students to learn for themselves–we might start to change what we expect from students. Rather than rushing them out of the halls, we might expect them to make some productive use of their time for themselves. It shouldn’t just be students at wealthy private schools who get to talk to their friends quietly, to sit and reflect, to read, to study, and to learn in the spaces of schools.

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