Feb 15, 2019

Purposeful Design Impacts Student Engagement

by Dalane E. Bouillion, Ed.D., Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz, Ph.D., and Lizzy Asbury, Ed.D.

School architects indicate that their designs really impact the learning environment. But how do we know that they do? Does design improve learning, or do they merely impact the built environment? Sure, a beautiful new structure can provide a facelift in a community, but until recently the scholarly research was void of evidence that design actually impacted student engagement. A mixed-methods scholarly study was conducted, with the approval of The University of Texas at Tyler, to determine what impact two new schools, both designed by VLK Architects, had on student engagement.

A Unique Opportunity
VLK Architects had the unique opportunity to design two replacement elementary schools in the Houston area around the same time. Both schools were designed on the existing site, and the attendance boundaries of the schools remained intact. Therefore, the same staff, and the same students were moved from the existing school to the replacement school. Although the academic achievement levels in both schools were already high, the team wanted to study the impacts of the new designs on student engagement. In order to fully comprehend the impact of the new environments, the researchers gathered the perceptions of students via focus groups, and teachers, via an online survey. A conceptual framework of student engagement (Schlechty, 2001), with a deep understanding of the scholarly definition and engagement levels drove the protocols established for both student focus groups, and the teacher survey.

In order to produce a trustworthy study, precautions were taken to ensure reliability and validity. For the student focus groups, triangulation was achieved in a variety of ways. First, three researchers conducted the interviews in order to review and agree that patterns surfaced in the interviews. Additionally, multiple sources (students and teachers) were included in the study to establish various points of view; common themes presented by both types of participants comprise the conclusions of this study. Reflexivity was accomplished, as the biases of the researchers were identified, and the research team worked to keep them minimized. Rather than contradicting a participant, the team probed to understand more about a point of view when disagreement could have surfaced. Finally, negative case sampling techniques were used to determine additional perspectives that were not anticipated. Outlying responses that were infrequently gathered were studied to determine if they should be considered as an alternate point of view. The study resulted in conclusions that naturally presented themselves via grounded inferencing, rather than establishing a protocol of questions that led the participants in one direction.
Teachers’ perceptions of their students’ engagement were of interest. Teachers at both campuses were invited to complete an online survey to assist with balancing perceptions regarding the impact of the design on student engagement. Teachers volunteering to participate also completed an online consent form prior to accessing the survey. Teachers were able to complete the survey at their convenience within a two-week period. Given that teacher participation was voluntary, the goal was to have at least 50% participation; however, the researchers were pleased with the 77% participation rate. The researchers ensured that the teacher responses included in the data analysis only included those teachers who worked both in the old building as well as in the new replacement campus. 

Findings: Students’ Perceptions
Student focus groups yielded three significant themes:
(1)   the new spaces and the impact those have on their overall school experience, (2) the impact going to a new school has had on their engagement in learning, and (3) the changes in their teachers since moving to the replacement school” (Oliveras-Ortiz, Bouillion, & Asbury, 2017).
These three themes were then organized based on the students’ perceptions in the way that they articulated their beliefs.
            Students shared their strong beliefs about more “room to learn and explore” in the new schools citing feelings of “freedom and comfort” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) due to the better circulation within the campus, the feelings of openness due to deliberate natural light, and the spaciousness of their new classrooms. Students now feel as if they can accommodate their materials in order to learn in a variety of spaces within the building. Specifically, they talked about the collaboration areas that extend their learning environment in a variety of ways, making them capable to working on group projects, or with partners in ample space.
            Students were acutely aware of their commitment to doing work, or their levels of increased engagement in the new schools. They reported that it was more fun to learn in the new buildings, could spread out their materials, and had connections to specialized spaces such as Makerspaces and Science labs, where content specific tasks specific helped them, and even made them feel special. Writeable magnetic white walls designed to allow students to use the classroom as an instructional tool were preferred by the students. They felt they supported their interest in assigned tasks, and allowed for maximized instructional time.
            Lastly, students reported that their teachers were happier since moving into the new buildings. They perceived teachers smiled more, and contributed much of this happiness to the teachers’ ability to better organize materials due to increased storage. They were also appreciative that all teachers has a room to call his or her own.

Findings: Teachers’ Perceptions
            Teacher surveys revealed their perceptions of students’ engagement levels and habits using a Likert scale. The top three statements with the most support of agreement are detailed below in a table. Teachers found that since moving to the new schools, students were “more engaged in learning”, “spend more time working collaboratively”, and “are prouder to be part of our school” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017).

Teachers’ Perceptions of Student Engagement

“Since moving to the new building, our students are more engaged in learning”


“Since moving to the new building, our students spend more time working collaboratively”


“Since moving to the new building, our students are prouder to be part of our school”



This research indicates that design does positively impact student engagement in learning. Specifically, three main themes emerged that should function as critical attributes for designing replacement elementary schools. First, “purposefully designed learning space” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) should scaffold the process with every space designed to be a learning space. Secondly, schools should be created with “spaces designed to foster student engagement” (Oliveras-Ortiz et al., 2017) which requires an understanding of teaching and learning, curricular intentions, and student preferences with regard to personalizing their learning. Lastly, architects should “design to support teaching and learning” which necessitates a deep understanding of curriculum and instruction, as well as child development and current teaching methodologies. This groundbreaking study is important to the future of education, as educators and architects should be working on a design team together, influencing one another. Our built environment has the potential to impact learning; therefore, engagement. “Without engagement…there is little likelihood that students will learn that which it is intended they learn (Schlechty, 2001, p. 64).

About the Authors
Dalane E. Bouillion, Ed.D. is the Principal│Educational Planner for VLK│Architects. Yanira Oliveras-Ortiz, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at The University of Texas as Tyler. Lizzy Asbury, Ed.D. is the Chief Executive Officer of TransCend4.

Oliveras-Ortiz, Y., Bouillion, D., & Asbury, L. (2017). The impact of learning environments on student engagement. (Research Report). Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uttyler.edu/edulead_fac/25/

Schlechty, P.C. (2001). Shaking up the schoolhouse: How to support and sustain educational innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Meet Greg Moore, 2019 EDmarket Chairman of the Board


Name: Greg Moore

Company: Mooreco

Title: CEO, President and Co-Owner

Years in the education business: 29

When was your company founded and how (brief history)?
My mother, Lorraine Moore, a past president of EDmarket, founded our furniture division (previously called Balt) in 1985. She purchased BestRite, which was originally a division of American Desk in the 1950s. In 1990, we incorporated Vanerum into our Mooreco umbrella that today includes Mooreco essentials, Mooreco contract, and Vanerum North America.

How did you get started in the educational products business?
My mother began her work at Royal Seating, and she used me as a model for a new children’s chair, the Royal Prema chair, when I was 5. Sadly, I was not compensated for my work as a child model, despite the embarrassing sailor suit. Later I worked on the shop floor in production and shipping, earning my stripes of respect so to speak, and learning the business from the ground up. It was an invaluable educational experience.

I have been involved with the company “officially” since 1990 when I joined Bestrite after college. However, having grown up in the business, it has felt as if I have lived my whole life time within the educational industry. My mother brought her work home with her as literally her best friends were from the industry, so I grew up in education.

What makes your company unique?
While I am proud of many things that make up our company successful, I am proudest of our ability to continue the innovative culture that my mother founded the company upon years ago.

What do you like best about the educational products industry?
I have always loved the people in our industry, first and foremost. However, what I love intrinsically about what we do is we service children. We have an ability in our industry to impact the lives of children across America through educational environments. Having struggled in a non-progressive school setting myself as a student, makes our mission in this industry very personal for me.

What are you most proud of?
In terms of the association, I am incredibly proud to have been part of the group of industry leaders who created the EDspaces event as it exists today. There were a handful of us who really pressed for this event to change into what it is today, many of them friends of mine. While it ranks as a prime time event in its current form, there was a time where making this show what it is today was considered a high-risk investment.

As far as my career, I am most proud of providing a very profitable exit to my family from the family business, and then years later buying out my private equity partners. The ending of this story has yet to be written and I still have a tremendous amount of work to do before all is said and done.

How had EDmarket helped your business?
My career in this industry would not be what it has been without EDmarket. You can’t do business in education without knowing all of the right people, and you can’t know all of the right people unless you area member of the EDmarket association. Our association has always been the venue for maximizing potential in the educational market place. When it comes to EDspaces and environments there is no equal to what EDmarket can deliver.

What changes are you witnessing in the educational marketplace?
If you are a champion of change, these are the most exciting times we have ever experienced in the educational industry. Technology began this change, with the curriculum, products, and delivery methods used in schools requiring a different teaching approach. On top of this, a greater understanding of psychology around how humans learn differently as individuals is quickly changing the environments, tools, and furniture used to best achieve optional results in preparing children for their future careers. At the same time, we have seen schools shift from low cost procurement to quality, sensitive, better- built product, incorporating goal achievement in terms of student success allowing for more innovation in furniture focused on solution-driven environments.

How has your company adapted?
Mooreco is a company founded on innovation and embracing change. If you were to look at Mooreco from three years ago and then fast forward to today, we look nothing like we did then, and we will continue to remake ourselves going forward based upon our vision of the future. Change has always equaled opportunity at Mooreco. We are a very different company than the one my mother built, but the basics of our culture — have fun, make it personal, focus on the customer, and innovate for the future — still work, they just look very different than they did 20 years ago. One of the greatest compliments I receive from customers today who knew us in the past is “this sure is different business than your mother’s company.”

What one piece of advice would you give others in our industry?
Ship orders on time, under promise, and over deliver.  It sounds very simple but is easier said than done in an industry that requires 70 percent of its shipment revenue for the year over a 4-month time period. Besides that, follow the golden rules; Momma was right about all of them.

What are your top goals to accomplish as Chair of the Board?
1. Strengthen the balance sheet by eliminating distractions and focusing on our core. When my year as Chair ends, I hope to leave the balance sheet stronger than it is today.
2. Continue improvement on our best product, the EDspaces show, and leave it even stronger than it is today with constant expansion of exhibitors and attendees. 
3. Remain true to our mission of member participation in our leadership group. EDmarket has survived numerous years of upheaval in distribution only by the graces of leadership pushing us to change who we are. We do not exist today without our member leaders.

How can the membership assist you in reaching these goals?
I have worked on almost every committee that I could serve on over my last 30 years in our industry. In a year from now my time will be up. How can the membership help? Step up and volunteer!

Feb 14, 2019

Redesigning for Wellness: Case Study from Lindbergh School District (MO)

by Jana Parker Ed.D, Director of Innovation and Gifted                                                                   

In a typical day, students switch tasks every 3 minutes, get interrupted every 11 minutes and take 23 minutes to get back on task, (Steelcase). With those statistics, we cannot ignore the need for classroom learning space that reflect the demands of our generation z students. The students entering our classrooms today should expect a highly collaborative learning environment where creativity is encouraged, and their social, emotional well-being is recognized as a necessary component before any possibility of student outcomes are achieved. The well-being of any student should be our priority.

When individual student desks continue to be the norm and classrooms look the same as they did 20 years ago, we have done a disservice to our students and taken away their ability to have choice in how they learn best. Research commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education on the impact of physical design on student outcomes supports the idea that space is as important as the learning taking place. “It suggests that the learning space must be explicitly considered as part of planning and delivery to leverage the full potential of its impact on student outcomes,” writes report author Dr. Gabrielle Wall. Inadequate learning spaces can have an adverse impact on student engagement and achievement. The two should always be mutually exclusive, especially as many school/ districts further transform their educational institutions into one that fosters blended and personalized learning.

As learning spaces continue to transform, so too does the focus on the whole child and their social emotional needs. All too often, we have seen much attention given to learning spaces that directly impact academics and little to those spaces that would directly affect their social means. We must shift our thinking and challenge the status quo. Through the case study below, you will see how one school transitioned away from the traditional counseling office.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the Lindbergh School District, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri was in its 5th year of seeing significant increases in enrollment. Long Elementary, 1 of 5 at the time, had a total enrollment of over 670 students. A growth of 200 students in 5 years.  In a building that could adequately accommodate 550 students, every available space was being utilized, including custodial closets and stairwells. That August, a relief valve came, and a new elementary school opened that August.

When the new elementary opened, Long immediately lost almost 200 students to redistricting. This provided them a unique opportunity to not only redefine who they were as a school community, but also many of the spaces they had previously lost to student growth. This was not without challenge. There were significant budget constraints which meant outside funding sources would have to be found to assist with any major redesign. As luck would have it, a grant opportunity presented itself and in May of 2017, Long Elementary and their school counselor, Kim Maddock, became the recipient of a $5,000 ITEF grant. ITEF is the Innovation Technology Education Fund, a St. Louis foundation that empowers educators to embrace innovative learning projects and use technology in creative ways that promote excellence in education.

Traditionally, school counselors have a small room located near the main office. In this traditional space, because of the size, only a small group of students could meet at best. With an increase of students with significant social emotional needs and a desire to have a greater impact on students, a plan was developed that required moving to what had always been a grade level classroom. Maddock needed and wanted a space where students could find a sense of calm, focus and connection during their school day, and achieve a temporary escape from a world that has increasingly become more stimulating because of social and academic pressures. The sensory-based, responsive guidance room was a vision that quickly became reality.

Over the past several years, Maddock had noticed a sharp increase in the number of students who have trouble regulating their emotions appropriately, have shorter attention spans, have trouble in resolving conflict, self-harm, and were unable to successfully cope with classroom demands. Maddock and her staff had the belief those changes were due to higher levels of daily trauma and stress, as well as academic demands. The sensory and responsive guidance room was a huge addition to the school. It provided a space where students could learn to identify stress triggers, how the stress was affecting their body, and appropriate ways to release the stress.

“The goal of the new room is to create a simple space where students can allow their brains to just ‘be’,” Maddock said. “In a world where family makeup and stresses are different, and technology is constantly bombarding them with stimulation, it is important for young children to learn how to calm themselves appropriately in a supervised setting.”

Working with Rebecca Hare, co-author of The Space: A Guide for Educators, everything that went into the new room redesign had purpose and intent, in addition to utilizing student voice as a deciding factor on things. The result was a masterpiece. Within the room itself, several distinct areas were created to meet a variety of student needs. The design featured neutral colors — grey, white, and black — and minimal furniture. The ceiling went from white to black to help foster a sense of calm and warmth. Students were now able to practice yoga and mindfulness or escape all stimulation by taking a sensory break in a private curtained area. Students needing more activity could play in sand, swing on the indoor therapy gym, jump on a trampoline or leap into a safe crash pad. In addition, a large portion of the classroom was able to provide space for full group instruction to deliver classroom guidance lessons from the Missouri Guidance Program.

The room has now been recreated all over the St. Louis region as many have visited to learn, share in best practice, and become more informed as educators work collectively to do what is best for all students. As we continue to become more trauma informed and knowledgeable about toxic stress, the sensory-responsive guidance room must be a mainstay when learning spaces are discussed. All educators belong at the table.

Dr. Jana Parker serves as the Director of Innovation and Gifted in the Lindbergh School District. Jana also serves as a mentor for the Missouri Leadership Development System and is an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University. Prior to that appointment, she served as a principal for 6 years after teaching high school social studies for 12 years. During her teaching career, she spent a year in Ghana as part of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange and worked with teachers on professional development in Bangladesh as part of the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program through the US State Department. Follow her on twitter @Jana Parker