Trends: Key Developments Driving School Design
New approaches to teaching and learning, as well as the need to secure schools without turning them into prisons, are two of the key drivers of design though in K–12. Experts weigh in on how those trends are shaping schools.
- By Michael Fickes
- July 1st, 2019
The world of education is changing more
quickly and more comprehensively than ever
before. Two key developments are effectively
changing the traditional design of K-12 schools.
First, there are new and continually evolving
approaches to the task of teaching that are
affecting the physical design of classrooms.
Second, as you might imagine in today’s
world, it is important to assure the security of
students without locking up schools as if they
are prisons. Evolving school design concepts
can help with security, too.
Educational Trends are Calling
For New Classroom Designs
K–12 schools are perhaps in the
midst of the longest running trend
ever to arise in education. It is the
trend away from classical classroom
instruction in which a teacher standing
at the front of the classroom lectures
20 or 30 students seated at desks.
Today, however, more and more
teachers are breaking their classes
up into small discussion groups of
five or six students, who then talk
about the subject under study. The
discussions range across a variety of
topics, from what is in the textbook to
local problems related to the world
outside of school. The teacher moves
from group to group with the goal of
ensuring that students understand the
material and are engaging in useful
Informality reigns in today’s
schools, according to Todd Ferking,
AIA, DLR group principal from the
Seattle office of DLR Group.
“There are parallels to coffee shop
culture,” Ferking says. “Indeed, the
lines between eating, learning and
playing are blurring, and students are
moving from one activity to another
easier and faster.
“In addition, the educational spaces
themselves are breaking down into
smaller and smaller units. A single
classroom today might house several
groups of students, each studying
“This is a new system, of course.
The old system worked well for a lot
of students, but not so well for slower
learners and students who didn’t like
school. This new approach is proving
to work better for students who didn’t
care to engage with the old system.”
Classrooms are quite different
today. While in class in a new school,
students may sit or recline on living
room style furniture — sofas and
easy chairs — or on cushions strewn
across the floor. For those who have
writing to do or just prefer sitting
at desks, there are desks in the
classroom as well.
In many schools, the traditional
classrooms may have become outmoded.
Classes might be conducted
in buildings other than the school itself
or even outside.
Here’s an example, offered by William
Payne, AIA, chief executive officer and
principal with the Indianapolis offices of
Fanning Howey, an integrated architecture,
interiors and engineering firm
specializing in the design of learning
“Suppose a school is next to a
creek that is polluted — a serious and
legitimate real-world problem offering
a potential learning experience,” says
Students might report the problem
to the proper authorities at the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA)
and perhaps even offer to assist in
safe, unobtrusive ways, as a remediation
effort is mounted. Just think how
valuable such an experience would be
compared to reading a textbook. Even
the least studious of students might find
himself or herself observing and questioning
the clean-up effort first hand.
Consider, too, the various disciplines
such an adventure might tap. Not just environmental cleanup, but
chemistry would be required to diagnose
the problem. Geography and topography
would map out the contours
of the affected land. Depending upon
how long the class worked outside,
camping and other outdoor disciplines
might come into play. All are learning
experiences quite different from those
available in a traditional classroom.
Time To Go Back Inside
Of course, many, if not most,
classes are still conducted in classrooms
inside schools, but trends have
changed the design of indoor classrooms
Today, what used to be individual
classrooms may have seen the walls
removed to create large spaces with several
wall-less suites available to several
teachers and several classes.
There are new names for spaces as well.
There are “maker” spaces designed for tinkering
with burgeoning digital technologies. Makerspaces
have become so common that they
have become a one-word term: makerspaces. These repurposed spaces aim to support instruction
as well as computer work, media and
In short, school spaces are no longer designed
to support one activity.
Security Concerns Are Also Affecting School Design
Perhaps chief among today’s security challenges
is the problem of controlling who, beyond
students, teachers and authorized adults,
can get into schools.
In recent years, emotionally compromised
adults or troubled students have shown up at
schools with with the aim of harming students
in one way or another.
To deal with these threats, some districts
have hired security professionals to patrol their
school buildings and their entrances.
In addition, many school designs have positioned
a security vestibule outside the front door
of the school building. In such schools, the vestibule
as well as other school doors are locked
after students enter the schools in the morning.
The only way for anyone to enter such schools
during the day is to apply to a staffer inside the
main vestibule at the front door.
“We create security tools in and around
these vestibules, as well as in the reception and
administrative areas inside schools,” says H. William
Novian, a senior associate at JMT Architecture
headquartered in Hunt Valley, MD.
“The vestibule is a separate area positioned
in front of the administrative and classroom
areas of the school. To enter the school, a visitor
must negotiate his or her way through the
At the vestibule, a security staffer will ask
questions of visitors. May I see your identification?
Next comes a series of questions that
must be answered without reference to ID
cards, which remain with the security person.
What is your name and address? What is your
business here today? And so on.
The vetting continues inside the school’s
front door, where the secretary or other
employee in the administrative area of the
school will observe
the visitor, take
his or her ID and
run the driver’s
license through a
designed to call
out individuals with
records of bad
acts, criminal or
the visitor will
receive a visitor’s
badge with his or
her name on it.
badges are color
coded in ways
that identify where in the school the visitor has
been cleared to go.
These various vetting tasks might be assigned
differently, with the visitor having his or
her ID vetted at the vestibule and only showing
the ID at the office inside the school. It all depends
upon how the school wants to organize
In the end, educational trends and security
concerns are leading communities and
administrators to ask school architects and
designers to think about new approaches to
school design that not only enhance educational
experiences but also help to ensure the
safety and security of students, faculty and
administrators. It is a challenging undertaking,
especially compared to the way schools have
been designed in the past.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of School Planning & Management.