How can we improve high school design? Ask the students

November 21, 2016 Camilo Bearman

Why it's important to listen to students when designing spaces that will help them learn. 


Surprisingly, many schools aren’t designed with the students in mind, but rather around efficiently delivering curriculum content, managing behavior, or simply facilitating maintenance. For instance, ask any high school student if they use their locker, and you’ll find that schools are installing hundreds of lockers for no reason. Stepping outside the status quo (the ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ approach) during the design process can be difficult. However, finding a way of understanding students’ thoughts and desires while designing can be transformational, especially when the students know that adults are really listening.



By necessity, the Lab School in Washington, DC knew that the planning process for its new 30,000 SF high school needed to be different. Over five decades, the school has refined methods for engaging students who learn differently. Student-centered approaches like project-based and passion-based learning are practiced to captivate students in ways that books and lectures don’t.  Encouraged to take ownership of their own learning differences, these learners choose how to connect with the content and utilize their environment. It might seem counterintuitive, but students who are not “normal” book learners tend to flourish with more personal freedom.



Bring out the Space Kit
When asked to design a new building for the school, Stantec held a very open-minded and open-ended planning process. We used an early version of our “Space Kit” --a planning game featuring a collection of educational spaces from traditional classrooms to the latest trends like “genius bars,” maker spaces, and teamwork areas (ideas originating in retail and innovative workplace design). The Space Kit allowed students to envision themselves learning in different kinds of environments, and, most importantly, fostered a creative and relaxed conversation enabling students to ‘get real’ about how they prefer to learn.

Interestingly, every room type described in the Space Kit collection resonated with these high schoolers, from typical classrooms to the array of flexible, more innovative ideas. They quickly understood that the thing they most had in common was their individuality – each student’s learning profile was uniquely different. As a result, we approached the building more like a mini-campus with an assortment of spatial experiences for each learner.



Learning all over the spaces
By trusting the student’s authentic and honest input, the final program had it all. They actually wanted classrooms--as “uncool” as that might be--realizing the need for traditional structure in the mix of spaces, along with areas ranging from social to quiet, from large groups to small groups.  Most surprising were the spaces they desired for intense focus – spaces like “team rooms” and “pods.” That’s right, these digital generation students actually want to focus and lose themselves in thought! We also learned that they felt disconnected from nature, especially on this urban campus, and the preferred place to read a book was outside.


These important insights, among others, helped craft a learning environment that truly works and engages the students. The Lab School might sound like a unique situation, but it’s really just a great example of common sense design: anytime we’re designing a school we should draw on input from the end user, the student, and digging a little deeper pays off in the end. In education design, we sometimes struggle to pull clients away from what they already know (the double-loaded corridors lined with classrooms) and toward a fresh response which embodies their mission and vision. Why not enlist the students help break the mold? You might be surprised by what you learn yourself.


See also The Space Kit: Helping educators and students effectively plan their schools

About the Author

Camilo Bearman

Camilo is a natural design leader with experience collaborating with educators, administrators, teachers, students, and consultants.

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