IIW Minnesota

The Impact of 21st Century Learning on School Facilities

In education today, we talk a lot about “21st Century Learning.” I cannot attend a school leader meeting without hearing about it. Initially the focus was in the classroom and providing teachers with the necessary tools to prepare learners for 21st Century careers. The model for delivering education is moving away from teachers standing in front of the classroom lecturing to more collaboration and hands-on learning with individualized lessons.

Kennedy-1More recently, as our school facilities age and are in greater disrepair, the focus has shifted to the facilities themselves. I have heard many teachers share how their facility is holding them back from creating the learning environment they really want to provide their students. I continue to be impressed by the ingenuity of teachers and how they can reimagine their spaces. But they can only do so much.

So what does 21st Century really mean when it comes to school facilities? Here are some key characteristics of 21st Century schools:

1.) They are flexible.
An ability to easily adapt to do things differently and try new things has never been as important in schools as it is today. In 21st Century school facilities, teachers can deliver education in a specific way today and when that changes (which it will, thanks to the rapid rate of change in today’s world), they can change the space to meet those needs.

It may be years from now or next semester when they want their classroom to be transformed for a different set of lessons or even tomorrow when a different arrangement would work better for that day’s lesson plan. The walls and furniture can be easily reconfigured to create varying size spaces – without ever calling in construction crews. The pace of change in our world today has led to the need to teacher students a different set of skills. Schools need learning environments that enable teachers to teach innovation, critical thinking, problem solving and effective communication and to execute highly individualized learning plans through concepts like the School of One.

I am energized every time I see teachers work with each other and with the school maintenance crew to create new spaces where they know they can unlock learning at a whole new level.

Technology is driving change at an exponential rate. Many of the top jobs in 2012 did not even exist in 2002 and today’s teachers are preparing learners to find solutions for problems that have not  yet emerged. The great teachers I have met know that and they appreciate the flexibility to use their physical spaces in new and creative ways. Check out this video on 21st Century learning. It captures the rate of change and what schools are really facing.Because of that rate of change, even the teachers and school administrators with the greatest foresight don’t know what learning environments should look like 20 – or even 10 years – from now. Flexibility is the key to equipping what Minnesota is calling “The World’s Best Workforce.”

2.) They are healthy.
We know more today about how air quality and even access to daylight impacts not only our health, but also our brains and the ability to learn. A recent Harvard study further confirmed past findings. Researchers compared the impact of spaces with “tight envelopes of air” with those in “green spaces” on cognitive abilities. The results: The individuals in the “green spaces” performed significantly better on cognitive tests. The difference was substantial.

Yes, I am an architect. But good building design is not all about the looks. I enjoy going behind the scenes to improve a school’s mechanical system because I know the quality of air systems has a direct impact on absenteeism and the academic achievement of the students. Or implementing daylighting techniques to increase test scores and reduce energy usage.

Creating a 21st Century school facility includes looking beyond air and light to improve other spaces – such as food services. We want schools to have the capacity to deliver healthy food to their students – in today’s ways. Daily fresh food deliveries and a heightened focus on nutrition have replaced the large grills and hood fans that were once commonplace in school kitchens.

3.) They are sustainable.
Sustainability often marries the concepts of flexibility and health with stewardship. We are increasingly aware that the resources that previous generations may have taken for granted – even water – are not endless. Schools are preparing the next generation of workers and with that also comes a greater responsibility to be environmentally smart, from choosing the systems that power them to the materials they use.

In most communities, schools are the largest employers and the largest energy users. They have an opportunity to lessen their own energy footprint and provide learning opportunities to their students and their community along the way.

In one Minnesota school, we worked with school leaders to create a facility that not only lowers energy consumption and respects the environment, but also boosts attendance, test scores and the overall health of its students. The school, for an example, sells the energy produced by the solar panels and wind turbine back to the utility to reduce the school’s energy bill. All the practices were designed to reduce the school’s energy consumption by 49 percent, delivering a return on the investment in five years.

Working Together

Each of these elements are interrelated and perform best together. When schools strike the right combination of flexibility, health, sustainability and energy savings, they achieve greater results for their staff, students and communities. I get to experience this as an architect (and education advocate) working with staff and members of the community. Together, we find each school’s formula to truly move education and their community forward.

Schools cannot be what they once were. They’re equipping learners in ways we’ve never imagined, for jobs that don’t yet exist. School facilities built on flexibility, health and sustainability allow teachers to reimagine learning environments, students to become creative, problem solvers and administrators to continue to allow learning needs to shape their facilities.

So, pragmatically, what does a 21st Century school look like? I will break it down to some specific elements in my next blog.

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