The Classroom Is Dead

The Rise of Integrated Learning Spaces and the Education of the Whole Child

By Robert W. Moje, AIA, LEED AP
Principal, VMDO

Manassas Park Elementary School in Fairfax County, designed by VMDO, has received accolades nationwide for the way the facility engages students with nature and the understanding of the importance of environmental-resource stewardship. Photo by Prakash Patel Photography.

The classroom as we know it is dead. It is outdated in helping children meet their full educational potential.

Based on a factory-inspired model, the American classroom was designed to help children receive an adequate, standardized education. The prototypical public school classroom is set up to run 20 to 30students through the same educational obstacle course, at the same pace, with the same intellectual nourishment. The desire is that a certain majority of the class will finish with “passing” results that will help ensure further support and funding for the school. This system is predicated on a percentage-based hope that a child will fall within a certain range of measured intelligence.

But what happens to those students who don’t “pass” or to those who finish with better-than-average results? The classroom model has failed to provide both inclusive and individualized educational experiences for American students, particularly for those at the extremes. The challenge before us is to educate each child and unlock every student’s individual potential as citizens and future leaders.

With the advent of new technologies, educational philosophies, and research strategies, it is possible to educate each child while still meeting educational requirements. This opportunity for specialization has major implications for teachers, parents, and school administrators and particularly for the school environments in which children learn and play. Here is a look at some design worthy of our scrutiny.

Flexibility of space: Spaces that can be easily arranged to support the learning process are needed more than ever. In a well-designed school, every space and surface helps contribute to teaching and learning. This is a new design paradigm that calls for more break-out spaces, circulation areas, flexible furnishings, views of nature, technology-rich learning areas, and creative graphics and wayfinding to activate learning.

Just as no two children are alike, no two schools should be designed the same. Children are living, breathing beings who need different types of environmental stimulation and opportunities for adjustment. The paradigm is no longer about targeting specific areas of students’ intellect, with the hope that they will respond in a certain way. Rather, it’s about engaging the whole child and helping students understand their bodies’ and minds’ unique rhythms and potential so that they can become more intuitive learners now and into adulthood.

Nature as teacher: We need school buildings that incorporate more daylight, scenic views, locally sourced foods, and fresh air. Opening children up to nature instead of sheltering them from it adds another full dimension to the learning experience. We often do not realize how restrictive school environments can be, particularly in terms of how children are allowed to interact with their natural surroundings. Thoughtful architectural choices inspire learning, support well-being, and encourage focus by exposing students to healthy conditions in the world around them.

Culture of continual improvement: While not a specific design strategy, constant improvement is a trait found in good architecture that also speaks to our psychology as humans. Fundamental is the desire to raise our children to be the very best that they can be and make sacrifices to help that hope become a reality. The way that we have educated our children in the past, under the factory model, is incompatible with this culture of improvement. Why support a model that supports only the average child sometimes, instead of every child all the time? Such thinking is a disservice to our culture. Although change does not happen overnight, we can try to change pieces and parts at a time.

Creative architectural solutions that provide flexible spaces, incorporate nature, design for health, and inspire integrated, individualized learning opportunities are making things better. I believe that with time, with the results of further research and testing, and with the involvement of more specialists, we will continue to improve. School systems with mediocre facilities will realize “it’s better over there” and make a choice to build better schools. There is no right answer and no single narrative of change, but there is better. And helping to cultivate a child’s interests, passions, and potential through integrated design solutions, at the moment, is better.

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One Response to “The Classroom Is Dead”

  1. Bob,

    It is well written and should give educators and everyone with a vested interest pause for thought. You have always had the best interests of every child at heart.

    One error is the picture — it is stated as a MP school, but in Fairfax County. I know that is an oversight, but wish it could have been rectified prior to print.

    You have made the little red school house so much more for all children. I know first hand, the children of Manassas Park are proud of their learning environment! We have seen better test scores, a higher percentage of graduates, and more continuing their education post K-12, better competition in sports because they are proud of their home fields, and moreover…happy faces! When children of all ages enjoy coming to their school, they learn. That is what it is all about.

    It was a privilege to work with you on our schools in Manassas Park. You are a treasured friend to my family. Anyone savvy enough to hire VMDO to build their schools, will come out on top for their children. Thank you for giving this to every jurisdiction who hires you.

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