Schools designed for learning

The Comprehensive School in Joensuu

This article in Ed Week, called Form Meets Function in Finland’s New Schools, reminded me of a couple of high schools I visited when in North Carolina last year: Monstrosities. Huge. Impersonal. Architecturally and design bereft. Just boxes built next to and on top of other boxes. Sure, I get why this needs to happen. There are budgets to hew to; there are pre-approved designs, from other schools in the district; there are thousands of kids to house; there are construction schedules that need to need to be stuck to. Their design has not changed for a hundred years.

Now, contrast the ugly American schools I saw with the schools in this exhibit, developed by the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki, that described seven Finnish schools that had opened from 2001 to 2007. As the Ed Week article writes, these schools “exemplify [Finland’s] move from factory-style schools, with all classrooms and desks in rows, to contemporary campuses built to meet the pedagogical and social needs of their students and teachers.”

The Kirkkojärvi school in Espoo

So it’s not just a move away from ugly; it’s a move to design that exemplifies and aids the learning that should happen in a school. In these schools there is a focus on collaborative spaces, for both teachers and students, and there is easy access to the outside, for recess and for outdoor learning. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill classrooms and other spaces with light, building on what this 1999 report from the School Design and Planning Laboratory at the University of Georgia stated: That student performance on standardized tests is affected positively by daylight.

Sure, schools need to look like these right now, not like the soulless buildings that I visited. But the school of the future demands even more of a shift from our current design. We hear about this future school – one that’s wired, one that has students moving at different paces, one that values collaboration, one where the teacher might be more of a facilitator, less of a sage on the stage – but there’s not much movement in the States to design schools that foster this sort of approach.

The Strömberg school in Helsinki

Or at least I thought so ’til I heard from Sue Reed, a college classmate and architect at Smith and Vansant in Norwich, Vermont.

“It may be that the average school has tended to the plain, horizontal and blocky, since maybe 1950,” she wrote, but “I used to work for a firm that was involved in school work in New Hampshire and Vermont, where there is a lot of citizen involvement in boards and public meetings, schools are largely paid from from property taxes, and we were always very conscious of that we were spending money out of the pocketbooks of the local folks.  That said, schools were really interesting to  design – to organize them to the individual school’s philosophy, to make the budget stretch, to be colorful and playful, to use daylighting, to be more free to design than in custom houses.”

East Fairhaven ES in Fairhaven, MA

To illustrate her point, Sue sent me a link from Boston’s HMFH Architects that showed a slew of thoughtfully designed schools – click through to see for yourself – and she finished by saying, “This isn’t to say that the Finnish schools might not be great. But designing and building schools is complex, and judging what is ultimately success from what criteria is difficult. Just seeing some well-done professional photos, whether of the Finnish schools or Mario Torroella’s work, doesn’t really allow one to judge the whole picture.”

Thanks, Sue. I’m less grumpy now. She’s right: School design is a complex, community-centered process, and more important than nice pictures is the inclusive process that is integral to the design of any school building. And it’s good to see that there are folks in the US designing and building schools that are not so old school, the kinds of schools that kids and the adults at them deserve. Thoughtful school design shows a respect for those inside that building and a respect for and partnership with the teaching and learning happening there.

Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School in Los Angeles

The first image came from here. The Kirkkojärvi school image came from this Fast Company article. The Stromberg school image was from here. The East Fairhaven school image can be found here. Lastly, the Maya Angelou school image is from this blog.

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One Response to Schools designed for learning

  1. Glad to see that school design keeps others awake at night, too. You’re absolutely right about the constraints of budget, schedule and public process dictating school design in many instances here in the U.S. The challenge for HMFH and other firms is to not lose sight of the educational goals and to use the tight budget and strict programmatic guidelines to stimulate creativity and innovation, not dampen it. In addition to working hard to design schools that foster learning, HMFH is also organizing an exhibit on the subject that will go up at the new BSA (Boston Society of Architects) Space in November. Among the international schools featured in the exhibit will be a trio of Concord, NH, elementary schools are organized around flexible Learning Commons that encourage collaborative, hands-on learning. From building messy paper mache volcano models to Skyping with a naturalist aboard a marine research vessel, students and teachers will have the freedom to work outside the confines of the traditional classroom.

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