Designing Lessons

By Debra Viadero — November 30, 1994 8 min read

Imagine a neighborhood school that blends seamlessly into the city landscape. Students and citizens alike might share a public garden, a library, or a performing-arts center.

Teachers would have their own offices, and students could work undisturbed in peaceful alcoves. There might even be housing for senior citizens or college students who could serve as mentors to young children.

And to provide an extra margin of safety, the offices of teachers and administrators would come complete with glass walls overlooking entrances and common areas so they could keep watch on the comings and goings at the school.

These are a few of the ideas that have come out of a project begun last year by the architecture department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Known as the New American School Design Project, the three- to five-year effort is aimed at creating schools that reflect the current thinking in school reform.

“As America focuses on the school, very little attention has been paid to the design of school buildings themselves,” Roy Strickland, the M.I.T. architecture professor who heads the project, writes in an article on the project in the fall 1994 issue of Teachers College Record. “As yet, no model has emerged as the equal of the turn-of-the-century urban school or the post-World War II suburban school even though the need to create new models is as strong now as it was 50 and 100 years ago.”

Blueprints for Learning

Not much is known about how the design of a school can affect learning.

“The research is really quite limited,” says Harold L. Hawkins, a retired Texas A&M University professor who unsuccessfully tried several years ago to create national interest in the subject. “There have been many people over the years who thought the only way they could establish relationships was through test scores.”

“So many things affect learning,” he adds, “it is difficult to link it to one factor.”

But, if ever there was an opportunity to pay more attention to the subject, it is now, according to Strickland. Studies show that the country’s school buildings are in sad shape. One 1991 report suggests, in fact, that one in eight schools nationwide is physically “inadequate for education.” And large school districts, such as those in Atlanta, New York, and Las Vegas, Nev., are now looking to invest millions of dollars to replace deteriorating school buildings.

Strickland first tried his hand at designing schools at the request of New York parents’ groups looking for alternatives to school-building proposals that the city’s school board was considering. While much of that effort is still in limbo, Strickland says his designs were well received.

When he came to M.I.T. in 1992, Strickland suggested the architecture school make school design part of its curriculum. The New American School Design Project was launched in 1993 with funding from M.I.T.'s Trust in Diversity and Ernest A. Grunsfeld Fund.

In its first year, the project sponsored a conference that drew 200 architects, educators, and parents to examine the link between design and school reform. Strickland also created a school-design studio where graduate students could come up with plans for schools in different kinds of settings, such as the inner city, suburbs, or rural areas. The students also contracted with school officials in Berkeley, Calif., to offer ideas for reconfiguring the school system there.

The students focused first on designing an inner-city K-12 school. For the site, they choose two blocks that straddled two of Boston’s poorer neighborhoods--Roxbury and the South End.

In preparation for the project, they consulted with teachers in a residential program at the university. They read the works of such education thinkers and reformers as John Dewey, Deborah Meier, and Sara Lawrence Lightfoot. And they looked at the way buildings other than schools combined public and private spaces. They even studied designs for a monastery, English country houses, and the social clubs that popped up in this country earlier in the century.

“A good school building is like a good house--or a hotel for kids and teachers--in that it has a variety of spaces that provides a variety of opportunities for interaction,” says Strickland. “If we thought of schools as providing houses for people with that kind of richness of space and variety of activities then we’d be designing much different buildings from the ones we have.”

The students drew several conclusions from their research. First, their inner-city school designs would be for small neighborhood schools attended by children from the time they entered kindergarten--or earlier--until they graduated from 12th grade.

“We thought this was an interesting issue because older and younger kids might learn from each other and might establish a relationship with the school over time,” Strickland explains. What’s more, he says, a principal in Roxbury has found that parents don’t want their children to leave her K-8 school to go on to high school.

The architecture students also decided the spaces they designed had to be flexible. Classrooms, for example, would open into one another for group activities. And students would be able to study independently in small, quiet spaces but still work with their classmates in larger areas.

Teachers would have offices that they might share with one or two other teachers or keep to themselves. After all, Strickland says, “we don’t ask other professionals to walk around with a book and park wherever it’s convenient.”

And all of the buildings would be organized around a central courtyard and would be integrated in some way into the life of the city around them.

Schools to Scale

With these outcomes in mind, the students developed seven design schemes.

One plan featured a dormitory and a gym that opened onto the street so the public could have easy access to the facilities. It limited access, however, to the courtyard, which would serve as a sort of an outdoor commons for the school.

By varying the level of the ground and other landscape features, the courtyard also provided a zone where young children could play on their own but still be within sight of the older students.

The plan’s most unusual feature, however, is that it sets aside two buildings where students and teachers could live. When his graduate students had asked M.I.T. teacher fellows if they’d be willing to live on-site, Strickland explains, some had expressed interest.

“If we’re extending schools for longer periods and offering housing for some homeless students, it certainly would be a good idea to have more adults present,” Strickland says. “Some elderly people might also be interested in living near kids and providing services and guidance for younger kids.” And students enrolled at area colleges, he adds, could be another source of residents who could serve as tutors and maybe even get class credit for the time they spend with students.

Another plan places a public library above the auditorium and features a small plaza in front where citizens can meet and come and go independently from the rest of the school. Others make the school more of a center for the neighborhood and provide spaces for job counseling, day care, and health services that the entire community can use.

The most highly integrated of the plans calls for a school that blends into community gardens. A gatekeeper opens the gardens to the public every morning, and students in the upper grades have classrooms interspersed among the greenhouses, where they work as part of their school experience. There’s also room for retail stores where students can sell the produce they grow.

“In Boston, there is a rich tradition of neighborhood gardens, carried over from the World War II victory gardens,” Strickland says. “Also, this came about through discussions on what kids like to do and reading John Dewey’s theories of learning by doing--putting their hands in the earth, making things that might also be sold, and developing a relationship with the surrounding community.”

Inside, some of the plans call for doing away with the traditional long corridors found in most schools. Instead, they cluster groups of classrooms around a smaller courtyard. There, students might also be able to eat lunch outside. In most of the plans, stairways are also expanded so these spaces, too, could be used for informal gatherings.

Designs for Discussion

This year, Strickland’s graduate students have set their sights on a middle school in suburban Belmont, Mass. But many of the issues they are dealing with are the same.

“In the inner city, families depend on institutions and social services to support family with dental clinics, day care, et cetera,” he says. “In the suburb, the rise of women in the workforce and two-income families have also created situations in which families are increasingly dependent on external support for them.”

“It’s an opportunity to look at schools as the increasing focus in the lives of families and the lives of kids,” he says. “Buildings built in the 50’s and 60’s don’t address problems of the city or realities of middle-class life in the suburbs.”

What the project has not done, however, is figure out how much its designs would cost to build. But Strickland says the students have based their designs on the assumption that most classrooms will accommodate 30 students, and they did use conventional specifications for the overall size of classrooms and other school facilities.

And, although no plans are in the works to build real schools with project designs, Nancy Spaeth, Berkeley’s associate superintendent, says the architecture students have given her district good ideas. The district will modify and use, for example, a school-desegregation plan the students designed that calls for dividing the district into three crescent-shaped zones.

She adds, “They also gave us the idea that schools should be less like institutions and more like homes"--a concept the district is incorporating in plans being developed now to build three new schools.

But Strickland is quick to point out that seeing the students’ designs get built was not the purpose of the project.

“Our attempt in this effort,” he says, “is to provide a series of patterns and design concepts that can be discussed by educators.”

Further information on this project is available from:

New American School Design Project Department of Architecture Massachusetts Institute of Technology 77 Massachusetts Ave., Room 7-303 Cambridge, Mass. 02139-4307

Strickland, R. (1994). “Designing the new American school: schools for an urban neighborhood.” Teachers College Record, 96, 32-57.

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Designing Lessons