School design literature, Part 1: Design theory, strategic design, and technical design

Many schools are not designed through conscious planning. School structures and daily school operations often result from the interplay of multiple conflicting purposes rather than from integrated design (Kirst, 1984).

If school designers are engaging in serious and effective design work, their planning will draw on multiple sources including their own experience, visits to and analysis of existing schools and design models, and the literature of school design. Unfortunately for practicing designers (especially those not currently grad students, as I am), the school design literature is not so easy to navigate or apply.

In order to create some organization in the research, policy, and technical support literature on school design, I have organized it into three bodies: Educational theory; Strategic school design; Technical support. I outline these three bodies below and will focus in on each of them in upcoming posts.

Design Theory: Dating back to the turn of the 20th century, design theory has detailed overarching philosophies of school organization including school purposes, pedagogy, leadership, physical design, and rituals and routines (Blankstein, 2002; Darling-Hammond, 1997; Dewey, 1938; Hirsch, 1996; Sizer, 1992; Thorndike, 1914). These theoretical frameworks and philosophies can help school designers make sense of the landscape of school design and can guide designers in developing clear and meaningful purposes. School design theories help focus school priorities and needs.

Strategic Design: Strategic design literature, in contrast, supports school designers as they turn purposes into processes and structures. Strategic design sees the organization as a dynamic and social system (Barth, 1990; Cook, 2005; Dalin, 1998; Dimmock, 2000; Evans, 1996; Lytle, 1997; Sizer, 1992).

Strategic design emphasizes autonomous, interactive, emergent, and flexible approaches to design. Strategy entails planning how to motivate individuals, how to execute programs and structures, and how to adapt to change. Strategic design emphasizes the interconnection of all parts of the organization, the processes and tools required to accomplish change, and methods for ongoing learning over time.

Technical Design: Where strategic design emphasizes perspectives on and approaches to negotiating the dynamic social and structural systems that drive an organization, technical school design literature provides specific tools, processes, structures and models to aid the implementation of specific elements school design (Danielson, 2002Dryfoos and Maguire, 2002Feldman, Lopez, and Simon, 2006Wiggins and McTighe, 2007).

As a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s principal certification program, I have binders of research and technical support for organizing and structuring schools and for managing school change. The challenge for me and for all new school designers is how to sort and organize this literature in a way that can be useful to their work.

In my own work, I use Ackoff and Magidson, and Addison’s (2006) idealized design (ID) (See my recent post), as a point of reference for examining the school design literature. I use the three bodies of literature outlined above to support the stages of design in the ID model–as a system for organizing the literature of school design. This framework has helped our design team develop a coherent vision of schooling and to begin structuring the elements of design so that they serve this vision.


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