Apr 12, 2019

Facilitating Teachers as Designers of the Learning Environment

By Julie Henderson, Lynda Hayes, Ashley Pennypacker Hill and Jennifer Ramski

P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida
is one of Florida’s four university lab schools. Established in 1934, P.K. Yonge’s mission is to design, test, and disseminate innovations in K-12 education through serving a diverse student community. As the result of a campus master plan evaluation in 2007, P.K. Yonge began a multi-phase project to reconstruct their K-12 school campus, beginning with the elementary building which opened in 2012.


A new state-of-the-art building is scheduled to open for 21 teachers and 350+ students in four months. Input had been provided and was incorporated into the architectural design and construction, but interior design and furniture specifications were not included in the design-build scope. There was no plan for furniture. As future inhabitants of the space, teachers had to be at the center of design choices, but they were also designing the plane while in flight —developing new ways of doing school as the new facility was being constructed.

Building Design and Construction
The design phase of the elementary building at P.K. Yonge began in 2008 with input from many stakeholder groups within and beyond the school community. By the time the project broke ground, teachers were invested, had a deep sense of ownership over the new facility, and more than likely, breathed a sigh of relief.

Once construction began, teachers’ minds were, in large part, refocused on transforming the school program to take advantage of the future architecture: curriculum, schedules, and student groupings. Teachers could take a break from “Should this wall be glass or solid?” and “Where should an electrical outlet be?” and return to the more familiar territory of “How are we going to teach in this space?”

Learning Design
Floor plans were on the table in many meetings, and groups of teachers spent time discussing and developing models of teaching and learning appropriate for a school and learners of the future. With the new facility grounded in a multi-grade learning community model, professional learning focused on developing operational models for learning communities — what they look like, how they function, and how they transform teaching to support all students. As a result, teachers became well-versed in innovative models of education and the learning spaces that support them. They had been experimenting in inflexibly-designed 1950s facilities, but their proposed shifts in teaching practice were seismic. School administrators had been searching for existing schools for to see in action and learn from, but choices were very limited. At this stage, the light was also dawning that this space was going to need furniture.

Learning Space Design
Enter Jennifer Ramski, founding principal of the interior design and planning firm, Ramski & Company. Ramski arrived on the scene with construction nearing completion and a six-week time frame in which to facilitate decision-making for furniture solutions with 21 teachers for a 35,000-square-foot building. The pressure was on and school leaders were determined to have teachers drive the design of the learning spaces.

Challenges were numerous, all in the name of designing a school and model of education that was innovative and truly focused on meeting the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s learners. A two-pronged initiative innovating around architecture and interior design, and driving major shifts in teaching and learning meant that even in their area of expertise teachers didn’t know what they didn’t know. They were in the process of designing new ways of work, new ways of being in their work spaces, and new ways of scheduling and organizing students. So many decisions had to be based on hypotheticals and processes not yet fully tested. In addition, most K-12 educators could not even begin to dream that they would be able to choose new furniture for their existing classrooms, much less design a completely new building and furnish it.

This new facility presented elementary teachers at P.K. Yonge with a huge new space, and then asked them to choose what should be inside it. For a single teacher in a single classroom, this would be challenging enough. Now add seven teachers who have to agree on all the furnishings for the whole learning community. A challenge to say the least, not to mention the added responsibility of making decisions that would impact teachers and students for generations to come.

The decision-making process was further complicated by the added layer of an evolving educational program. Making choices for design and furniture brought to light unclarified details regarding curriculum, teaching and learning, scheduling, and managing student movement in the space needing resolution before final choices could be made. Meetings and conversations about design and furniture were lengthy, detailed, and absolutely necessary. While Ramski & Co. were committed to making teachers dreams come true, efforts were also challenged by space size, wall placement, time frame, and other architectural features already in place.

Facilitating Final Design Choices
After an initial whole-group programming session, it was clear that large group input would not work given the cacophony voices and a rigorous timeline. Ramski and her team shifted gears and developed rapid cycles of decision-making. A core committee for furniture was established with representation from each of the learning communities (K/1, 2/3, 4/5) and two elementary teacher leaders. Givens were established by the teachers to help refine the focus and streamline conversations: flexibility, modes and preferences for teaching and learning, space, time frame, and storage needs, among others. Ramski’s team developed and administered surveys for the whole faculty from which designs were developed and shared with the core furniture committee for feedback. New designs were developed based on teacher input, presented to the committee, and the cycle continued. At certain points, larger groups were brought together to finalize input for each specific learning community’s needs, and forced decisions were made.

Knowing that teachers have high levels of expertise in “making do,” Ramski was committed to giving teachers what they wanted. It became immediately evident that the capacity to listen to what was being said ‘behind and underneath’ the teachers’ words was critical, and to know that silence meant that teachers were not in agreement, weren’t feeling heard, and were retreating back to their well-honed “make do” mode. It was also critical to find pathways for teachers to work in true partnership with designers and for the design team to know their teachers as clients. Teachers knew what they wanted to do, and Ramski and her team knew the market. This partnership meant that choices could be made with optimal expertise on both sides of the designer-educator project team.

With expert facilitation, deeply-invested teacher input was solicited and incorporated into all aspects of decision-making. Design choices were made, furniture selected, and amazingly (kudos to the teams) move-in day took place as planned.

Post-project Observations
Fast forward six years and a retrospective view tells us the process has been a success. The school enjoys interest from around the world in its architecture, design, and innovative teaching practices. With maximum flexibility as a guiding principle, the space successfully supports the innovation and change integral to the school’s culture and mission. 

Hindsight always provides such clarity and wisdom. Observations on the process, coupled with post-occupancy evaluations are critical in informing professional practices for designers and educators engaging in a project of this magnitude, and the educator-design team gained much from the experience of Phase 1 of the campus rebuild. With Phase 2 to break ground in 2019, much of the wisdom gained from the designer-educator partnership from Phase 1 is being incorporated into a process for the secondary building that promises excellent outcomes and fewer sleepless nights!

Interior Design Process Observations and Tips

     Start early in design — Being included in the schematic design phase allows for critical opportunities to listen and for teams to develop trust.

     Include teachers in the planning and programming — Teacher input at the schematic design phase is the expert voice in the use and functionality of spaces and furniture.

     Hire experienced professionals with education experience — Design professionals with education experience have an enhanced capacity to listen “behind and underneath” what teachers are saying.

     Include teachers and designers in professional development — The team learns and discovers together and ensures expertise of both teams is utilized.

     Experiment with samples — Hypotheticals or drawings are inadequate for choosing options that best work in spaces and with children as occupants. Teachers must have a chance to use samples with their students.

     Specify budget and what teachers want — Include sizes, colors, and finishes. This saves time during the bidding process.

     Engage the facilities manager during purchasing, installation, and transfer of ownership — Include warranties, cleaning instructions (especially fabrics), and maintenance requirements.

     Focus on keeping everyone “on board” — A new facility is such a great celebration! Make sure everyone feels that way!

School Leadership Observations

     Teaching and learning continues to evolve — Furnishings chosen for maximum flexibility can be reorganized annually as teachers and students learn and grow into the space.

     Teachers need walls — Display spaces and teaching walls are essential for supporting student learning and celebrating student work. Don’t underestimate how much!

     Storage needs are vital — Teachers and students have “stuff” and it all needs to go somewhere.

     Teaching and learning shift in response to architecture — They don’t shift on their own. Professional learning and commitment are critical to staying the course and changing the future for our children.

This article is based on the EDspaces 2018 presentation by Julie Henderson, Director of Communications at P.K. Yonge; Lynda Hayes, Director at P.K. Yonge; Ashley Pennypacker Hill, Director of Student and Family Services at P.K. Yonge; and Jennifer Ramski, Principal at Ramski & Company.

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