In an interview with HoltThink, I indicated that designing within the allotted square footages is necessary for keeping the costs of the school project into line with the anticipated budget. While we work to align projects costs, we must also understand the mission and vision of the client. By embracing a responsive approach, we can thoughtfully transfer the goals of the mission and vision into a practical and inspiring design. Hence, we must aspire to adopt a responsive design approach.

A responsive design approach begins by examining the context of the place and developing an understanding of the spaces needed in the design. Rather than merely arranging spaces to align with the proposed exterior design aesthetic, the responsive designer considers interior relationships first and reflects on how the spaces (s) will influence learning process. Furthermore this approach brings together the research on the learning process and learning environments. Hence, this approach regards the learning environment as a vehicle of transformation whose life truly begins once it becomes inhabited by learners.

While the description above hints at this unique process, how does the responsive approach work to create such environments? The goal of this article is to tell the story of how this approach was employed in creating the Early Learning Center at Holy Cross College in Perth. This article will examine a process which has extended my experiences as a designer, researcher and educator.

Understanding the Program (Educational Brief)

The Early Learning Center (ELC)is part of the third stage for a six stage master planning effort by EIW for Holy Cross College (HCC). By the time (2022) the all the stages are completed this campus will support the development of Kindergarten through Grade 12 students. Nevertheless, the work for the schematic design ELC began in November 2011. The spatial program included:

  • 2 Pre-Kindergarten Classrooms with a shared toilet room (100 square meters, each);
  • 2 Kindergarten Classrooms with a shared toilet room (90 square meters, each);
  • 2 First Grade Classrooms (70 square meters, each)
  • Multi-purpose Room (65 square meters);
  • 6 storage rooms (10 Square meters for each classrooms);
  • Staff Office (12 square meters); and
  • Toilets (staff, universal access toilets, as well as boys and girls toilets).

The primary concepts that influenced the design were grounded in my experience as an educator in New York City, research on the use of space at various schools in New York City, and an examination and assessment of specific architectural precedents from around the world.

Experiences and Research from the Classroom

My primary training in the classroom occurred at an alternative public elementary school. This training occurred in the first half of the 1990s. This elementary school housed kindergarten through 6th grade and was located in East Harlem New York City. Except for kindergarten, this was a two stream school. There were two first and second grade classes, two third and fourth grades, and two fifth and sixth grades. Each teacher planned their activity-based curriculum. The curriculum was designed to encourage independent and collaborative work. Within this environment, the children learned from their negotiations with their social environment, teachers and peers, as well as their physical environment.

The experience I gained from working at this school in a third and fourth grade classroom revealed that:

  • Teaching is a direct result of preparation. There are routines (rotations) that are planned to occur every day. These structures provide consistency ad continuity. Furthermore, this structure instills routine along with building and reinforcing the culture of the classroom environment;
  • Learning occurs in a variety of ways, since each learner has particular way of acquiring knowledge and working with others;
  • Cooperative learning is not a group always working together as a unit, but rather involves occasions to share ideas collectively. Furthermore, cooperative learning promotes opportunities for independent work which allows learners to develop knowledge that is shared with the group;
  • The physical environment provides occasions for connecting the learner and the things to be learned. This is achieved by having defined activity areas/settings/zones that can expand or contract depending on the actions and activities of the group; and
  • Over the course of the year, while learners develop biologically, emotionally, and physically, this development is influenced and shaped by the learning environment. Hence, learners are transformed develop emotionally, socially transformed by their transactions with their social and physical environments (Lippman, 1995).

Role of the Teacher in an Activity Based Learning Environment:

As indicated, teachers structure the cooperative activities to encourage the learner(s) to develop their communication, creative, and critical thinking skills. Cooperative learning strategies were employed to encourage students to develop these formal skills in seemingly less formal ways (Giangreco, Clonigner, Dennis, & Edelman, 1994; Harper, Maheady, & Malette, 1994; Johnson, Johnson, & Maruyama, 1984; Slavin, 1983). Since this age-group looks to their teachers as referents of behaviour, the classroom teachers modelled cooperative learning activities (Griffin, Belayva, Saldatova & the Velikov-Hamburg Collective, 1993; Moll & Whitmore, 1993, Arndt, 2012. This was achieved from presentations to students about the activities and projects performed with other teachers. These presentations allowed teachers to share what they had learned and showcased how people can be transformed by their work with others. Lastly, these presentations highlighted that everyone possesses valuable knowledge that contributes to solving problems.

The Activity-Based Learning Environment:

The learning environments may be described as Acivity-Based as well as Learner-Centered. Within this environment, the teacher’s is not a content provider but rather a facilitator of knowledge. The facilitator oversees the work that is being developed and is in all ways ready to guide the students’ participation (Knowlton 2000; Greeno 1998). In these settings, the activities are structured to promote opportunities for peripheral, guided, and full engagements. Learning is understood as a practice where students are engaged in experiential, authentic and relevant activities. Furthermore, children are encouraged to build on their schema as they consider possible options for solving current and future problems.

Organization of the Activity Based Learning Environment:

Whereas the day was a series of scheduled routines, the physical environment of the classroom space was planned with the intention of guiding the learning process. As the teachers’ planned the curricula to support the children’s’ learning experience, every aspect of the physical setting was arranged with a variety of clearly defined activity settings (Lippman, 1993, 1995). Conceptually, there were six learning zones: a reading area, building area, block corner, display corner, science corner, and art niche. These settings served a dual purpose. While they were planned to support the different formal activities, these learning zones also promoted opportunities for the development of social and emotional aptitudes, such as learning how to resolve conflicts and share resources with one another (Lippman, 1995).

Additionally, the child’s identity formation relates to the day-to-day history within the setting (Proshansky & Fabian 1987; Proshansky & Kaminoff 1979). Therefore, the classroom becomes a place where learners develop their identity, a sense of self, as they work through the specific tasks at hand (Rivlin, 1975; Wenger, 1998). Furthermore, identities are created as meanings emerge. The meanings are reinforced from the individuals’ transactions. Hence, the situations within the settings encourage them to view and review their own achievements as well as acknowledge the accomplishments of their classmates. These accomplishments contribute to the shaping of a learner’s identity (Lippman, 2010).

Research on School Design

This research from the early 1990s informed and influenced my thinking about the design of place. Therefore, Practice Theory became the framework for guiding my design process; for, Practice Theory recognizes that both the learning environment and the learner are active. The actions of the learner influence the learning environment and the learning environment, the social and physical, in turn, transform the learner. Building on this perspective, the designer must consider the situations that take place in the learning environment. Once the actions are considered, activity settings can be thoughtfully incorporated into the design (Lippman, 2010).

Examples of elementary school buildings that best connected these ideas, for me, are:

  • The Montessori School in Delft designed by Herman Hertzberger;
  • The Apollo Montessori School designed by Herman Hertzberger; The Prototype Schools in Lincoln Nebraska (Maxi, Cavett, Campbell and Roper) designed by The Architectural Partnership;
  • The Community Charter School In Paterson New Jersey by Design Ideas Group; and
  • The Gateway Schools in New York City designed by AB Studio).

Each of these precedents was designed with activity settings adjacent to the classroom spaces. These activity settings are generally organized around a larger disruptive element. This disruptive element, sometimes a grand stair, supports these activity settings. While the grand stair provides a place where learners can gather in smaller and/or large social groupings, this element also affords activity setting around it where learners can work independently or meet in smaller social groupings. In addition, these spaces have been designed with fixed cabinetry that informs learners how these smaller spaces might be used. Hence, these projects suggest that the designers investigated how the spaces might be used by the learning community and then planned them to support the intended activities.

Research on Learning Environments

Since my work in the 1990s with the elementary school, I have primarily worked as an educational facility planner. As a planner I have also participated in other research projects that reinforce the ideas about spatial design. These ideas have led to the development of a theoretical perspective on spatial design. This perspective recognizes that the spatial design of learning environments is composed of connected and differentiated learning zones/activity settings. Generally, teachers/facilitators control how the furniture and equipment in the room is arranged. Activity settings can be created to support independent, one-to-one, small group and large groupings. This, however, is not generally the case with the areas outside the instructional spaces.

These spaces take the forms of corridors and/or are organized around common open central spaces. In either case, the spatial design of these areas is disconnected from the activities that occur in the instructional spaces. The reason for this is that:

  • Corridors and are designed with a singular purpose which allows learners to move between instructional spaces (Lippman 2010); and
  • Large central, open, and common spaces, on the other hand, are programmed to support multiple activities. Generally, this approach has greater limitations. The limitations are governed by the need to support too many activities with no areas clearly articulated or defined. Furthermore, the design relies on the placement of furniture in the space to assist the learners, rather than differentiated activity settings associated with specific classrooms. Furthermore, this approach for creating common shared spaces does not consider the applicability or practicality of unfixed or loose furniture in the setting; for, it either is removed or requires oversight to support the diverse actions that can occur simultaneously. The open spaces become compromised, because it cannot be designed to support independent, one-to-one, small group and large group gatherings. Unfortunately, it is unsuccessful as multi-purpose area; for, it, essentially, becomes a space that supports a singular activity. Generally, this function is for having large group meetings. This singularity of function becomes ineffective for extending learning beyond the instructional spaces.

Building on the research, these singular function and, essentially, disconnected spaces must be rethought (Lippman &Betz, 2013). To become effective and offer opportunities for optimal learning experiences outside the classroom, these spaces must be purposefully designed to encourage independent, one-to-one and small social groupings (Lippman, 2014; 2013a; 2013b; 2013c; PEHKA, 2012). First and foremost, connect instructional spaces to differentiated push out/breakout areas.

While these may be viewed as disruptive to the larger common space, these zones, in fact, assist the learning process. By creating these activity settings attached to instructional spaces, teachers and students alike will develop a sense of ownership for them and as such will be comfortable knowing they can extend learning opportunities outside the confines of the classroom. Hence, these settings assist the educators, who can at any time allow small group work to occur outside the room during scheduled class time (PEHKA, 2012). Furthermore, to encourage the use of these places, they can be arranged with fixed elements (cabinetry—seating and/or countertops) and movable tables and seating to support independent, one-to-one, or small social groupings of 3-6 students.

Based on the findings from my research, the following concepts for collaborative spaces outside the classroom were developed:

  • Breakout Rooms;
  • Breakout Hollows;
  • Breakout Niches; and
  • Breakout Nodes (Lippman 2014; 2013a; PEHKA, 2012).

Breakout Rooms:

These activity settings may be described as small meeting rooms. They are private and are generally planned to support 1-6 learners. These spaces can support independent, one-one-one and cooperative social groupings. Additionally, these meeting rooms may have glass walls and maybe furnished with moveable chairs, a table, TV monitors, and vertical writing/display surfaces.

Breakout Hollows:

These are semi-private settings that support activities for 1-3 people. Basically, they are push-out zones that are connected to classroom spaces. These learning zones may be openings in walls, along corridors, outside classrooms, within the instructional spaces and waiting areas. These spaces may be built-in cabinetry planned to support self-directed and cooperative learning activities. Additionally these spaces may include TV monitors, and vertical writing/display surfaces. Lastly, these settings allow learners to revisit and extend their activities during scheduled and unscheduled periods.

Breakout Niches:

These are semi-public settings that are designed to provide opportunities for formal and informal spontaneous interchanges. Learners can work independently as well as in small groups. Furthermore, these spaces provide opportunities for a few small social groupings to work simultaneously adjacent to one another. Furthermore, these activity settings may be recesses/alcoves/corners at intersections in hallways and are furnished with both fixed cabinetry seating and countertops, moveable seating, TV monitors, and vertical writing/display surfaces. Since the furniture can be moved, this means it can be re-arranged immediately. Hence, a social group can expand or contract their activity setting depending on their activities.

Breakout Nodes:

These are public areas that encourage a range of organized and spontaneous interchanges. This type of space promotes opportunities for independent, one-to-one, small group and large group transactions to occur simultaneously. These spaces might include a sunken floor under a grand stair. Essentially, this type of space is a salient feature of the setting around which are breakout rooms, niches, and hollows. Given that these spaces can be used formally, consideration should be made to outfit them with the suitable technologies such as sound systems, TV monitors, and vertical writing/display surfaces.

This article was first published at: HoltThink