Schools of Thought

Education Construction Projects Focus on Flexible Learning Environments


“Schools are starting to realize that they need to prepare students for a rapidly changing world.”

—Mark Thaler, Gensler, New York, New York, USA

Tomorrow's workforce is developing today. But many students are still learning in yesterday's classrooms.

As disruption and innovation reshape entire industries, educators around the world are demanding learning environments that promise to foster the skills students will need in the future, says Mark Thaler, senior associate and education center of excellence leader, Gensler, New York, New York, USA.

Classrooms that enable more interaction and collaboration are now at the center of many forward-looking school design projects. According to the World Economic Forum, complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity are the top capabilities students will need by 2020.

“Many schools are starting to realize that they need to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Traditional teacher-centered learning needs to give way to experiences that blur the lines between disciplines,” Mr. Thaler says.

Some new facilities feature “makerspaces” that give students hands-on experiences to help build in-demand skills. The US$47.3 million Smart School, set to open in 2019 in Irkutsk, Russia, will offer a variety of learning spaces that let students collaborate on projects that span various subjects. Working together to meet a real-world goal, such as building a stage for a school play, combines hard skills like math and woodworking with softer interpersonal and artistic skills.


Smart School is set to open in 2019 in Irkutsk, Russia.



“Therefore it's not only one side of intelligence that's being used,” says Carsten Primdahl, Aarhus, Denmark. He's a partner at architecture firm CEBRA, which designed the school.

The project, which launched in 2015, provides specialized subject spaces, covered terraces, outdoor teaching spaces and multipurpose areas spread across a 25,000-square-meter (269,098-square-foot) campus. Similarly, CEBRA's Skovbakke School in Odder, Denmark—a public-private partnership set to open this year—incorporates plazas and themed classrooms designed to develop specific capabilities, such as creativity and scientific thinking.

“Schools need to incorporate a spatial diversity that actually allows groups to find different kinds of spaces that accommodate their activity, rather than have to adjust the activity to the space,” Mr. Primdahl says.

But project teams must also keep a close eye on the cost of specialized spaces. Designers must make sure schools are versatile enough that large spaces won't remain idle most of the day. That means pairing specialized spaces with more flexible areas.

“When you talk about budget, you need to talk about square meters per kid at the same time,” Mr. Primdahl says.

Dwight-Englewood School's Hajjar Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center in Englewood, New Jersey, USA makes the most of its 28,000-square-foot (2,601-square-meter) footprint by taking a cross-disciplinary approach to hands-on problem-solving. The school features seven flexible classrooms and eight science labs built around an “innovation hub” where students can learn in a quasi-workshop setting.

“The school's mandate was that science and mathematics not be taught in isolation but instead be presented together, using an integrated, experiential approach in which students work on meaningful problems and are motivated to solve them,” says Mr. Thaler. His organization designed the building.

Plan for the Skovbakke School in Odder, Denmark


But defining what this would actually look like required collaborating with the school's faculty, administrators and board members from the start. The team's stakeholder engagement process involved visiting 16 science and technology facilities over six weeks. Gensler's designers also developed a discussion guide to help educators take a more expansive view in evaluating STEM spaces and thinking about how an ideal facility might look and function.

The resulting US$20 million facility, which opened in 2015, encourages teamwork with features such as communal marker boards that can be used for impromptu problem-solving sessions and colorful nooks that accommodate small group study. A soft seating zone creates a living-roomlike setting where students and faculty can comfortably meet to discuss assignments and projects.

The project team also focused on future-proofing the school's structure. While features like the robotic lab were on the leading edge when the facility was completed, tech advancements will likely require the school to be updated in the not-so-distant future.

“Everyone on the team realized that change is inevitable, so one of the hallmarks of the project is flexibility,” Mr. Thaler says.

For example, to allow educators to completely rethink the building's structure if needs do change, the school has no hard-connected gas piping and very little built-in furniture. The team also made sure the building could easily incorporate new tech by creating a robust wired and wireless IT system throughout, Mr. Thaler says.

“The building is a hard container, but its insides are adaptable.” —Tegan Jones


“Schools need to incorporate a spatial diversity that actually allows groups to find different kinds of spaces that accommodate their activity.”

—Carsten Primdahl, CEBRA, Aarhus, Denmark



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