by Carla Remenschneider, RID, IIDA and Ed Schmidt, AIA
It’s Friday in Kansas City and EDspaces 2017 is in full swing. A diverse mix of educators, administrators and designers fill the Innovation Space, eager to discuss the challenges involved in creating “the world’s most pedagogically-advanced school building.” The title of our presentation is in reference to the British International School of Houston (BISH), an innovative new PK-12 school campus designed for Nord Anglia Education. But what we’re really here to discuss are the five distinct learning environments found at BISH—lovingly referred to as caves, campfires, watering holes, mountain tops and marketplaces—and how any school can utilize them to become pedagogically-advanced. Or, that is the plan...
Halfway through our presentation the conversation steers away from the design of learning environments and into the operational strategies behind them. We’re surprised to discover our audience is just as interested in learning how to get teachers to properly use these spaces as they are in the physical environments themselves. It represents the awareness of a gap between what is being designed and how users (teachers and students) are actually interacting with these spaces.
A (Quickly) Shifting Landscape
The gap between design and reality shows up even in our presentation. We crafted our interactive session to use Twitter as a tool for real-time feedback. Audience members break into small groups and tweet questions and comments using designated hashtags, and their posts are displayed in real-time via a screen at the front of the room. BISH Principal Andrew Derry even participates from Texas.
Yet for one group, our high-tech presentation disconnects. In this group, there is nary a Twitter user to be found. And so 21st century tools do them no good, and they initially shut down, refusing to participate.
This small glitch (we quickly found this group a Twitter user to serve as scribe) parallels the challenge that 21st century learning environments pose to many administrators and teachers. Changing physical spaces and tools is relatively straightforward, but changing people? That’s another challenge altogether.
It is this resistance to change, and how we plan for it, that dominates the discussion during the last half of our presentation. When classrooms change, teaching methods must change too. 21st century learning environments are only successful if teachers are open to the concepts of flexibility behind their design, and if they take full advantage of all they have to offer. But how do we get teachers to do this, especially when it requires an adjustment to how they teach?
In response to this challenge, research-based design is a trend on the rise in K-12 architecture. Post-occupancy evaluations can serve to assess design features and inform designers if their facilities are being used as intended. If they’re not, designers can explore why and brainstorm ways to correct it in their future designs. Post-occupancy evaluations, especially when done by a third party researcher, can be expensive, but it’s worth the investment for designers if they want to improve. At the very least, research can back up design decisions and validate features. At the very most, it can lead us to understand how different aspects of the physical environment affect learning, and to what extent.
Architects can also help users by involving them in the design process. Learning about a client’s current teaching methods can help designers to ease the learning curve for teachers, and receiving input from them creates a more customized design that will be easier to adapt to. Virtual reality is a great tool for allowing teachers to experience their new classrooms before they are built and give live feedback. As designers it is our job to use all of the tools at our disposal to ease our clients into their new environments, and make sure they are using them successfully.
Lastly, as designers we should be connecting new clients to past clients who have gone through a similar process. This provides an opportunity for teachers to ask questions and to learn from one another. They can see 21st century learning taking place and discover how these like-minded schools implemented change. Firsthand experiences and testimonies can go a long way in motivating educators.
Outside of encouraging your designer to do these things, a lot can be done from the school’s side too. Principal Andrew Derry describes BISH as “the most pedagogically-advanced school building in the world,” but the school wasn’t always this way. When designing BISH’s innovative new campus, emphasis was put on providing a variety of specialized learning environments to support every type of student. The school built a prototype teaching space in their old library for teachers to experience the new direction, and it allowed teachers to familiarize themselves with the new environments and explore how best to use them. By the end of the year, administrators knew which teachers would come back to embrace the new curriculum, and which would move on.
Now, BISH teachers encourage students to collaborate at “watering holes,” present on “mountain tops” and share their experiences around “campfires.” BISH’s central atrium, called The Agora, serves as a “market place” to the community where students can participate in a wide-range of collaborative activities. And, for students who learn best on their own, “cave” spaces offer quiet solitude for personal reflection. Teachers at BISH leverage these spaces along with integrated technologies to support a wide range of lessons, projects and learning activities.
BISH Principal Andrew Derry was one of the biggest advocates for this change in instruction. To set a school on the right path, it is important that administrators embrace the concept and lead by example. Seeing leaders on board and excited for this progression within a school will help to excite teachers and staff.
Becoming Pedagogically Advanced
We came to EDspaces to discuss how to design a cave, but ended up talking about how to use one. Still, the message of our presentation holds true: with passion and creativity, 21st century learning environments can be created and utilized regardless of budget. Administrators and architects must be advocates for these environments, and with them, changes in teaching. The first step is to be transparent with staff, explaining the new direction of your school and why these changes are happening. Then, ask your architect to connect you with schools that have gone through a similar process. Tour their facilities and study how they use spaces. Ask how they taught before, how they implemented change and about the benefits to how they teach now. This will help your school to formulate a plan going forward that everyone can get behind. Then, follow through. With inspiration, dedication and a willingness to change, any school can become pedagogically advanced.
Carla Remenschneider, RID, IIDA is director of interior design at Fanning Howey, a national architecture and engineering firm focused on the design of learning environments. She was the interior designer for the British International School of Houston. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ed Schmidt, AIA, is director of project management, The North Americas for Nord Anglia Education. He was the architect for the British International School of Houston. Ed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.