EdTech & Design, Promising Practices, School Community, Teaching

Research supports value of updated school facilities

Research on Pedagogy Supports the Value of Updated School Facilities:

Two recent peer-reviewed studies support the need to update the traditional school design model that has remained fundamentally unchanged for over a century.

In a 2011 study published by the American Educational Research Journal, entitled “Problem-Based Learning in K-12 Education,” Clarice Wirkala and Deanna Kuhn document a 200-500 percent improvement in learning retention with authentically student-driven, inquiry-based learning. This is precisely the type of teaching and learning supported by the varied spaces in FNI designs, including interconnected Learning Studios, DaVinci Studios, Common Areas with wet and messy zones and small Meeting Rooms.


In a ten-year study published in 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, entitled “The Missing Link in School Reform,” Prof. Carrie Leana documents higher learning outcomes when teachers collaborate in a meaningful way. The importance of treating teachers as professionals and providing suitable spaces for their collaboration is exactly why FNI provides teacher collaboration rooms with individual teacher workstations, storage areas, and meeting space.


Obstacles to Progress:

Obstacle #1: A lack of coordinated professional development.

FNI has surveyed teachers around the world and found that the desire for additional professional development is always one of the top three out of 30 needs surveyed. When sufficient professional development is lacking, there is sometimes a poor fit between teachers and a new facility.

For example, when I visited one of our new schools shortly after it opened, there was a small percentage of teachers that were struggling with the new design. One math teacher noted that her approach involved teaching 100 percent via lecture and with a data projector. Due to greater than expected enrolment, she was teaching in a common area rather than a fully enclosed Learning Studio and was finding the nearby movement distracting at certain times of the day.

In contrast, many of the most effective math teachers today rely on direct instruction for ten or 20-minute periods, and then send their students out into breakout areas to work individually and in small groups, with excellent results. The math teacher experiencing occasional strain from distraction will benefit from professional development, allowing her to take advantage of alternate and effective methods of instruction.

Obstacle #2:  Many districts will avoid innovation out of fear of repeating mistakes of the past.

Sadly, they are relegating their students to outdated facilities due to lack of understanding. During FNI’s engagement process with the International School of Brussels, one of the top performing International Baccalaureate Schools in the world, a number of teachers were nervous about changes to the organization of their environment. In response, we developed a list of 11 activities that they could perform in their new school that they could not do in their old facility, including:

  • Flexibility for trans-disciplinary teaching/planning
  • Quiet spaces where small tutorials can happen
  • Quiet spaces for student break-out groups
  • Large groupings for Advisory activities
  • Space for students to relax, reflect, and socialize
  • Grade level/theme meetings occurring simultaneously
  • Ability to transform smaller rooms into large-to-larger rooms for lecture to combined groupings
  • Naturally connect disciplines
  • Spaces for large group presentations and performances
  • Increased personal communication
  • More space for kinesthetic learning

Obstacle #3: Pressure to focus on standardized testing and the need for short-term results getting in the way of a holistic, long term results

There has been plenty written about this subject already. What we can add is that an innovative facility design does not preclude space for traditional learning and test preparation. At a number of our schools, an intense focus on testing is still evident and sometimes prevents teachers and learners from taking full advantage of the varied spaces and fluid connections. However, the teachers are glad to have a facility that allows them to grow rather than one that inhibits growth and innovation. 

Obstacle #4: Lack of funds

This obstacle is generally a misconception. FNI schools have a higher efficiency ratio than traditional schools, where more than 20 percent of the school is devoted to corridors and non-educational space. We have done many pilot projects for less than $200,00 over the summer to convert portions of schools to a more effective learning environment.

Obstacle # 5: Lack of good information

Through DesignShare.com, which I founded in 1998, and The Language of School Design, which Prakash Nair and I co-authored in 2005 and updated with a second edition in 2009, we have shared information about innovative schools with millions of people around the world.

Obstacle # 6: It takes time

As educational leader Michael Fullan writes: “It takes about three years to turn around an elementary school, six years for a high school and eight years for a district.” Douglas Park School just opened this month, and Lord Kitchener, although under fire, has yet to open. There are successful public schools by FNI that are not too far from Canada and already in place, like Jackson and Roosevelt Schools in Medford, Oregon, each with two years of success under their belts. 

Meet the Expert(s)

Randall Fielding

Randall Fielding, AIA, MAIBC, Chairman, Fielding Nair International (FNI). FNI is educational facility planner and design architect for Douglas Park School, Regina (Sask.) Public Schools

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