EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Rethinking School Design

The Transition from Space to Place

The transformation of the space we call school to the place we call school is neither innocuous nor unintentional. Instead, each time a new school facility is planned, built and furnished, it is infused with a set of values, expectations, assumptions about children, about teachers, and about the way that the relationship between the two should develop.

To be sure, new school buildings stand in anticipation of the future, but they also carry with them the practices and traditions of the past—elements that are so ingrained in our thinking that they have become part of the DNA of the institution.

When we talk about school change from the perspective of reform, the physicality of schools is not really an issue. After all, much of today’s reform agenda is grounded in the idea that our current model of doing school is fundamentally sound. We just have to tighten up our approaches, batten down the hatches, and get back to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Major architectural revisions are not part of the reform blueprint.

But if we want to talk about transformation—and I believe we do—then we need to be bringing our teachers, students and administrators to the planning table even before shovels go into the ground. The educational ideas that are part of transformational thinking need to inspire the conversation between architects and school officials. The schools that are newly built or renovated in this 21st century need to speak unequivocally about the principles of learning to which we adhere.

If differentiation and universal design for learning is being inscribed in our policy documents, then flexible space and multi-purpose areas need to be available. We can no longer expect that the traditional classroom can be the locus for these approaches.

If we are holding up collegial collaboration as a leading indicator of school quality, then we need to rethink the predominant designs where individual cells (classrooms) empty onto fairly narrow hallways. Instead, common learning and meeting areas that invite conversation and sharing are needed.

If we really believe that the schools can foster a love of learning in both children and adults, then our design cues might well be taken from other places in our community that have been forced to consider the needs of those that come to learn: art galleries, museums and science centers are all good examples of spaces that have been transformed into places of real, interactive learning.

If we recognize the fact that play and leisure are wonderful opportunities for deep and valuable learning, then outside spaces and designated indoor places for this to easily and effectively occur are essential.

And if we are really committed to the vision of schools as community hubs, then places for welcoming the community must be built in to the design. It is no longer acceptable that visiting parents are relegated to hallways and crowded foyers. Instead, multi-purpose resource rooms for waiting, for meeting and for interacting would provide a more invitational atmosphere to the vision.

These are just a few of the ideas that have been swirling around in my mind of late. Many educators want to offer programs that are committed to and reflective of the type of interactive, investigative and engaging approaches to learning that inspires transformational thinking.  Unfortunately, much of this thinking is not supported by basic elements of physical design. To be sure, those committed to new approaches to learning have done their best to be flexible, spending many hours attempting to recreate space so that it becomes the place that reflects their values, but this is time consuming and sometimes a little daunting.

I believe that a sense of place is created as soon as physical space is imbued with value, belief and a sense of purpose. In the case of schools, this takes place well before the end users have any real chance for input. In the case of most schools, the traditional principles and approaches that hold back the work of transformation are inscribed in nearly every aspect of their design.

I believe that a conversation needs to be opened up around this transition from space to place, and it is a conversation that needs to occur between all with a stake in school-based education.  I would like to begin some of that conversation here by inviting you to share your stories, your resources, and your ideas about school design?

Are you part of a school community that has had the opportunity to rethink the physical design of its learning space?

Have you altered existing space to create a different type of place for learning?

What are the aspects of current design that best support your beliefs and values about teaching and learning?

Have you encountered any examples of creative and innovative school design—examples that have caused you to say, “Woah, I would love to live there?”

I’ve included a few references here as a starting point for some shared thinking on this. Why not take a look and weigh in with some of your own?

As always, I look forward to the conversation!

Some initial resources

Ethical School Design

An Education Canada article by Ken Klassen on the planning and design of a new middle school in Steinbach, Manitoba.

Design Share 

A set of resources dedicated to the exploration of designing for the future of learning. In particular check out the Language of School Design Tab


This site features that architectural details of some of the most innovative elementary, secondary and post-secondary designs in the United States. Each year exterior and interior design contests are held and featured in the annual architectural digest. Worth a look!

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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