By Jennifer Wohlleb
When it comes to providing quality education, do facilities matter?
Yes, according to Deborah Moore, executive editor and publisher of School Planning & Management magazine, who spoke about trends in education and design during KSBA’s annual Winter Symposium, Dec. 9-10 in Louisville.
“The average functional age of a school building in this country is 42 years old,” she said. “Functional age means since the last major renovation. The reality is, the buildings aren’t 42 years old, they’re 50, 60, 70 years old … classrooms are in a size and in a shape that are no longer the way that teachers teach or students learn.”
She said not only have more than 70 percent of the nation’s school buildings outlived their usefulness, but they also received a grade of D from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report on infrastructure – an improvement from previous grades of D- and F.
What this means in today’s learning environment is that existing schools are not built for the way students now learn.
Learning is “inquiry-based, learning-centered; it’s not just things you can memorize anymore and amazingly enough, facilities play a big part of it,” Moore said. “Schools are becoming more collaborative, teaching is becoming more interactive. That requires different layouts of rooms, that requires furniture to be mobile, that requires teachers to be a guide.”
Moore said learning an activity by doing it can result in 75 percent retention, which is why the traditional teaching model of a lecture with students listening passively at their desks is going by the wayside. She said enabling this new style of learning is more important than ever as schools try to increase student participation in STEM (science, technology engineering and math) initiatives.
“With the time we have students in school and you look at the way that we teach, it needs to be learner-centered, not the teacher trying to pour information into your head,” she said.
Educators need to keep the needs of today’s (and tomorrow’s) students in mind when designing learning space, which means both technology and self-organizing social space.
Social spaces are areas in schools that aren’t traditional classrooms, such as reading nooks, table labs and small-group settings. “The idea is that kids need social spaces – that is the millennial generation. They may be sitting across from each other but they’re texting each other instead of talking. But the whole idea is that they’re social animals and they need to work collaboratively.”
Millennials also mean technology.
“If you think you’re going to create the classroom of the future with technology, it’s not going to happen, because there’s no such thing as a cutting-edge technology classroom,” Moore said. “By the time you get the technology and you get it all plugged in, something new has come out. What you need to think about it is, it’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution and technology is just a tool.”
It’s a tool that school leaders need to make sure teachers know how to use. Moore also encouraged school leaders to include teachers in the design process for construction and renovation.
“When you develop a facility, you need to get buy in, you need to go through the planning process with the (facility’s) users and you need to instruct them as to how the school works,” she said.
How districts construct and organize facilities can also impact student health.
“The way you design your cafeteria can have a big effect on what students see as a healthy choice,” Moore said. “We do it basically through product placement. Cornell University just finished a study on what they call smart cafeterias. It’s a very low-cost way to do it, but it can really influence the choices a person makes with their lunch meal.”
Energy-efficient buildings are also the new normal.
“There are a lot of wonderful things happening in sustainability,” she said. “I don’t think sustainability is a trend anymore — it is the way buildings will be built, and it will be built into code and you’re going to have to absorb the costs.”
However, those costs come with significant energy savings, which can be put back into the classroom.
Moore acknowledged that today’s tough economic conditions mean future school construction will continue to dip, but said there will be increased spending for renovations and additions, which can make a big difference in learning.
“Not everyone has money for school facilities, but there’s so much you can do by just moving the furniture around,” she said. “You can create different learning environments.”