Building Schools Designed to Succeed

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Graphic by Emily Metcalf

By Dick Resch – Kids recently headed back to school. Unfortunately, many of them were greeted by worn-out desks and broken chairs. More than three-quarters of U.S. schools are in need of repairs.

The federal government wants to respond by investing millions of dollars in school construction and modernization. Those dollars must be spent wisely. The schools of yesteryear, with their rows of desks and stair-stepped lecture halls, don’t work for the students of today. Their stagnating academic performance proves it.


Educational leaders must embrace the technologically driven way that students learn today — and design and build schools that support that shift.

The design of school facilities has an enormous impact on student performance.

Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Salford recently determined that a school building’s design can affect student performance, for better or worse, by up to 25 percent. Seventy-three percent of students’ change in performance was attributable to classroom design elements.

The study looked at several factors. Classrooms that received greater amounts of natural light, featured ergonomically advanced desks, and permitted teachers to easily change the classroom layout all correlated strongly with improved academic performance.

The difference in learning rates between students in the “better” classrooms and those in the “worse” classrooms was equivalent to a full year of educational progress.

These findings confirm what designers and educators have known for years.

Consider the Fuji Kindergarten, a Montessori school in Tokyo, Japan. It was designed to support the school’s pedagogical approach by creating large, open areas where students can move around freely, despite the city’s tight space restrictions. The oval-shaped building has no fixed walls, and furniture can be easily rearranged.

In its 2009 expansion, Virginia’s Manassas Park Elementary School made ample use of glass — to allow natural light to flood in — and to create spaces outside the classroom where students could interact while still being supervised.

Architect Sean O’Donnell, whose firm EE&K recently completed a modernization project for Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., stresses the importance of size when designing school facilities. Properly child-sized environments that scale upwards as students get older can combat the perception of schools as large, uninviting structures.

The next generation of schools must also more adeptly incorporate technology. Today’s students are more deeply steeped in technology than any previous group. Forty-three percent of teens find it easiest to learn from the Internet.

Teachers have noted as much. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 77 percent of teachers say that digital search tools have had a positive impact on student research habits.

Yet even as the impact of school design and new technology on student performance is becoming apparent, policymakers are investing less in educational facilities. Annual spending on school construction has declined by nearly half — from an average of $20 billion a year between 2000 and 2008 to $11.7 billion this year.

Student learning styles have evolved dramatically, but young people are being educated in environments that haven’t been rethought in decades.

The solution is to treat education infrastructure as a crucial component of education policy. Each school’s design should complement the needs of its students as well as its teaching philosophy. Facilities should also be created with flexibility in mind, so that, as teaching methods, curricula, and students change, so too can learning environments.

Updating America’s education system will involve more than changing what goes on in schools; it will require us to rethink school buildings themselves. As the new school year gets underway, educational leaders should respond accordingly.

Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture.





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