Happy Learning Centersdownload the white paper

“Good school design can be defined and it can be measured. This makes it all the more odd that more than 99% of the $30 billion that the U.S. spends on school buildings each year goes into the construction of schools that will fail the test of good school design.” (Design For Learning Forum: School Design and Student Learning in the 21st Century — A Report of Findings, © 2007, American Architectural Foundation, page 24.) We would say that both design and good school construction can be defined and measured, and there are no excuses for building learning centers for students of all ages that do not meet minimum standards of both!

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Designing vs. Building

Artist-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose architectural work we greatly admire, held that the construction of any building is an aesthetic statement. In practice, today we largely separate the aesthetic (or design) decision from the physical construction (the fabric) of a school. An architect designs the school, and a construction project manager oversees its construction. Though the architect may set criteria for materials and/or for environmental or structural performance of building elements, in the field those criteria are ignored with impunity. Construction project managers are not held accountable for the actual performance of the building. (Actually, as far as we can tell, they are rarely held accountable for anything!) The results are, more often than not, buildings that fail to support, and in fact often impede, the learning that is intended to take place inside them.

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US Dept of Education Open Innovation Portal Number 1The video at the top of this page is the three-minute elevator show that summarizes how we see the difference between a happy school and a sad one. The video and a brief explanation condensed from the full white paper on Building Happy Schools: Parametric Modeling for 21st Century School Improvement were posted to to the U.S. Department of Education Open Innovation Portal when it opened in February of 2010. On this wiki-style portal, education funders, innovators and practitioners were invited to spotlight areas of need, propose and suggest improvements to solutions, and fund, implement, and improve these solutions in and outside of the classroom. IDEAS’ four postings on this and similar topics having to do with improving the physical and administrative fabric of schools catapulted to the top of the rankings in the first six months and remained there for the life of the Portal. Teachers were the overwhelming majority of those who commented favorably.

On the one hand, school design continues to resemble that of prisons and hospitals more than that of temples to learning. Pete’s written a tongue in cheek article that compares how an art teacher and an architect look at the same space, but there remains a serious disconnect between the workflow of teaching and the arrangement of space in most schools.

happy schools vs sad schoolsOn the other hand, the fabric of our school buildings is generally so poorly constructed and maintained that the buildings themselves are putting students and teachers to sleep and making them ill. School districts can allow disgraceful conditions that in any other building would result in local building inspectors red-tagging the building, because the district is a “local governing body” over which the jurisdiction of other local governing bodies is murky. Will a fire department shut down a local school because poor maintenance has breached fire walls or caused fire hazards to accumulate? Hardly! Will a building inspector deny an occupancy permit to an anxiously awaited and long overdue new elementary school because of shoddy construction? Only in truly egregious cases!

Local regulatory agencies set standards for the construction of school buildings that essentially mimic the standards for office buildings intended to house adult workers. These standards are inadequate to protect children from environmental hazards to begin with, and even as inadequate as they are, the building is tested to those standards only at commissioning — when it is empty. Their “design standards” are generally expressed as a matter of square feet per student — with no requirement that the space be configured to promote excellence in eductation. We discuss these concepts much more thoroughly in this white paper, but you can watch the video for a quick summary.

Can something be done to promote happy learning centers? Yes!

What does it take? Commitment from district or institution leadership to the principles of applied quality assurance and accountable project management, and a willingness to act on that commitment.

Did you know …

  • The EPA has documented studies showing that “1 in 5 of our nation’s 110,000 schools reported unsatisfactory indoor air quality.”
  • In California, students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent faster on reading tests in one year than those with the least.
  • In North Carolina, test scores of students moved into a portable campus when their school building was destroyed by fire dropped 17 percentage points in one year — and increased 19 percentage points in the year after they were relocated to a new, daylit school.
  • 20 percent of teachers in schools with poor acoustics reported they had missed work due to voice problems.
  • Studies in workplaces document productivity reductions up to 28 percent when temperature deviates from the optimal.

The bottom line:

“Researchers have repeatedly found a difference of between 5-17 percentile points between achievement of students in poor buildings and those students in standard buildings, when the socioeconomic status of students is controlled.”

Better buildings = better student performance