Education By Design: Challenging the Traditional Definition of a Learning Space

A new generation of school buildings is being designed to accommodate a new generation of students. Working with educators, many of today’s architects and interior designers are replacing last century’s staid school buildings and box-like classrooms with architecturally bold designs that are affordable, aesthetic, and energy-efficient.

Gone for good in many districts are rigid rows of heavy steel-framed desks with students facing a lecturer at the front of a neutral-colored classroom white chalk in hand.

“My classroom doesn’t have a front,” says Lauren Rudman, a teacher at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Va. “It’s flexible.”

Increasingly, new school interiors include seminar-style rooms with round tables, dry erase whiteboards in hallways, Scrabble and LEGO walls. To create extra space when needed for large internal and external group meetings, new schools usually contain retractable garage doors, foldable partitions, and stackable furniture.

Rudman’s fourth-graders are based in a studio classroom with a glass wall on the corridor intentionally placed across a technology commons area. Within a normal 45-minute class period, Rudman can find herself monitoring three sets of students with some sitting on the window box against the glass wall or on a stool in the commons area while others study at their tables.

“I can interact with one group of students at a small table in my classroom and still keep an eye on students on the other side of the glass,” she says.

Most of Discovery’s classrooms feature flexible furniture including height-adjustable tables, upholstered chairs, beanbags, and carpeted reading steps that provide students with flexibility.

“An appropriate amount of visual openness in a school promotes a culture of collaboration,” says Wyck Knox, lead architect on Discovery’s design team. “Everyone learns in unique ways, in their own preferred environment.”

Knox says there is no wrong way or place to learn although many of today’s architects are challenging the traditional definition of a learning space as defined by four walls.

“Each learning space should be allowed the opportunity to be something greater than its box,” he says. “Creativity is showcased in spaces that are joyful, bright, and honor the learner and educator.”

school design Discovery School in Arlington, Va. (photo: Luis Gomez)

Near Salt Lake City, in Woods Cross, Utah, Odyssey Elementary School incorporates into its teaching pedagogy the theme of “Bodies in Motion: The Animal Kingdom.” Classrooms are organized between four wings, called “habitats.” Each habitat has a name: swim, run, jump, fly.

“The idea was to create a fun environment students want to attend everyday,” says John Oderda, an architect who oversaw the construction of Odyssey, which opened its doors in 2014. “The one animal that can do all of these things is the human animal.”

“An appropriate amount of visual openness in a school promotes a culture of collaboration. Everyone learns in unique ways, in their own preferred environment.” – Wyck Knox, lead architect on Discovery’s design team.

Although education funding at all levels has been flat in recent years, the education construction sector remains one of the biggest in the category of nonresidential construction, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, for some officials leading our nation’s 13,515 school districts, there does not seem to be a need to start from scratch with a bold new building. Instead of a full facelift, some school administrators choose to nip and tuck one room at a time.

For example, Roosevelt Middle School in San Francisco won a grant that went toward updating the design and function of its cafeteria. In Chandler, Ariz., a teacher won a grant to renovate Santan Elementary School’s outdated school lounge.

Still, the Holy Grail of school cosmetic surgery at the moment seems to be the installation of solar panels to help achieve net zero energy cost. While only a handful of schools do so right now, says Knox, the percentage of new schools pursuing this objective is rapidly rising.

“Enough projects, specifically public schools, have demonstrated that achieving net zero cost is possible without breaking the bank,” he says. “Having more zero energy buildings is critical for the environment, but zero energy schools protect that most precious of tax dollars – annual operating costs of schools.”

Oderda agrees: “Good design doesn’t have to cost anymore than bad design. You have to put something on the wall. A colored wall doesn’t cost more than a white wall.”

The Art of Discovery

Nestled in a sleepy residential area of Arlington, Va., the radiant Discovery Elementary School rests securely atop a hill. Tidy rows of slopeside trees add beauty and cover to the two-story building. In front and along the tiered landscape, a long stonewall conceals several play areas, vegetable gardens, and water basins connected to an underground geothermal system that reduces energy costs.

While outdoor areas are shaded from the quiet streets below, the school’s cerebral interior is an open book. Every nook and cranny shines as a manifesto of exploration, imagination, and discovery.

“It’s more like a children’s museum inside, where the walls are interactive,” says Principal Erin Russo.

At Discovery, the walls, floors and ceilings thematically communicate the progress students make from one grade to the next. The first floor design scheme centers on earth ecosystems. Terrestrial shapes systematically orient kindergarten students as Backyard Adventurers. Upon entering first grade, students become Forest Trailblazers then Ocean Navigators in grade two.

net-zero schools Discovery School incorporates many energy conserving measures, including the approximately 1700 solar panels on the school’s roof. (photo: Luis Gomez)

The celestial-themed second floor identifies with the sky and solar system. At this elevation, third-graders are categorized as Atmosphere Aviators, fourth-graders as Solar System Pioneers, and fifth-graders as Galaxy Voyagers. When students start school, they sign their name on magnetic disc attached to the entry wall and watch over the years as their disc moves down the wall.

“This approach gives students a grade-level identity while also engaging them as they interact with the building,” says Russo.

Before Discovery opened in 2015, students from Arlington Public Schools who would be attending were asked at public meetings to vote on names for the school and mascot. The “Discovery Explorers” mascot name pays tribute to John Glenn, who lived near the school site when he became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. In 1998, while serving in the U.S. Senate, Glenn returned to space on the shuttle Discovery, the school’s namesake.

Serving approximately 650 students, Discovery cost almost $33 million.

A sleek roof canopy runs the length of the school covering outdoor dining and play spaces. More than 1,700 rooftop solar panels and other means account for the school’s net zero energy usage while serving as a lab where students conduct experiments.

“Features like these are designed to create a seamless integration between curriculum, environmental awareness, and energy sustainability,” says Russo.

One of the school’s showstoppers is a large digital dashboard screen located near the entry. The state-of-the-art system tracks Discovery’s lighting, technology, and other energy use in real-time where it is published and accessible to every school device connected to the Internet.

“We use it more as an interactive learning tool for students and teachers,” says Russo. “We want it to motivate them to help the building maintain net zero energy status and create awareness about energy use.”

The Sky’s the Limit for Learning

Art teacher Maria Burke stands beneath a solar skylight portal built into the ceiling.

“It adds light to the room on cloudy days,” says Burke, a member of the Arlington Education Association (AEA).

Natural light also cascades into the room from oversized windows facing south, a deliberate design point that took into consideration solar orientation. Along with Burke’s classroom, interiors on the south side of the building feature bright, sunny colors. The north side of the school features cooler colors such as greens and blues, reflecting the natural hues of moss that grows on the north side of trees.

In her classroom, Burke makes full use of tall wooden shelving to store art supplies. The room includes a retractable garage door that opens up for large-group meetings and three sinks aligned to accommodate more than one student at a time.

Discovery art teacher Maria Burke with one of her students (photo: Luis Gomez)

“It’s a dream classroom,” says Burke, who makes it a point not to clutter her beloved room with gratuitous signs and images. “Students need light and an uncluttered environment to think and create.”

Two unique features of the school are located on the second floor: a bright yellow two-story slide and a glass-enclosed meeting room for teachers fondly referred to as the “fish bowl.”

“An appropriate amount of visual openness in the school promotes a culture of collaboration, because that cross-pollination and creativity is showcased in spaces that are joyful, bright, and honor the learner and educator,” says Knox, executive architect at VMDO Architects.

Net Zero School

Along with promoting themes through innovative design, school districts are increasingly building schools that attempt to reduce energy costs. Davis School District’s Odyssey, for example, has been designated as being the first net zero school building in Utah.

Thanks to 1,200 rooftop solar panels and other means, the two-story building uses less electrical energy of any other school building in the state.

“Ideally, we wanted to generate just as much energy as we need,” says Oderda. “We estimated the school’s energy need when the design process started in 2010 and then designed accordingly.”

The classrooms at Odyssey Elementary School in Woods Cross, UT are organized between four wings, called “habitats.” Each habitat has a name: swim, run, jump, fly.

The school has also achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification, which is one of the most popular green building certification programs used worldwide.

“The school uses low-flow water fixtures,” says Oderda. Water conservation is also incorporated outdoors with the use of sensors in the school’s sprinkler system.

The hallmark of poor design, says Oderda, is obnoxious signage.

“We try to do things as visually as possible where you don’t have chunky arrows telling you where to go,” he says.

At Odyssey, its 650 students and multiple visitors can easily find their way around the two-story school by orienting themselves to six colors clearly laid out on the floor and walls.

The walls in the open cafeteria and auditorium area are decorated with large banners containing images of hikers, rock climbers, hang gliders and surfers. Inspirational quotes from J.K. Rowling, Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Seuss, and others line second-floor walls and doorways.

The Bodies in Motion theme encourages exercise and enjoying the outdoors, Oderda says. Childhood obesity was a front-page topic when the school was being planned beginning in 2010.

“The movement theme was a way to combat obesity,” Oderda says. “We try to present information at a level students will understand without talking down to them.”

At the design phase, the architects also considered the life cycle of the building and how it could expand with the times. Instead of tearing down walls, building doors and walls are easily removed for reuse instead of demolition.

“We tried to make the building as flexible as possible,” say Oderda, of Salt Lake City-based VCBO Architects.

The curved exterior of the building has sparkling blue reflective metal panels that evoke water in motion and reference the scales of a fish.

“The curved design makes it look like the building is moving,” says Oderda. “The building’s exterior is in sync with the school’s theme — movement.”

Physical design features like those found at Odyssey and Discovery might be architecturally stunning but they are above all else student-centered. While solar panels and digital dashboards may be all the rage in education construction, well-designed new schools seem to convey the simple message that society values education.

Photo credit (top image): VMDO Architects

Students hang out in Roosevelt Elementary’s new cafeteria. (photo: courtesy of IDEO)

California Cool: A Reinvented School Cafeteria

Designing school cafeterias as places where students might voluntarily choose to dine can be a challenge. In 2013, officials with San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) hired global design firm Ideo to help them determine how to get students more excited about eating at school.

After a six-month discovery process involving more than 1,300 district students, families, educators, cafeteria workers, and administrators, designers learned among other things that during lunchtime kids crave to be with friends.

“School cafeterias weren’t originally designed to make hanging out with friends a priority,” says Ideo’s Sandy Speicher. “Kids were waiting in long lines to assemble their food trays, and many students were skipping that process to get to the ultimate goal of social time.”

In addition to considering how to entice students to dine in, designers were also challenged by cost efficiencies and operations.

“One important component of the new design strategy was to create distributed points of sale so that students could access meals in multiple places in order to avoid long lines,” says Gentle Blythe, SFUSD chief communications officer.

Today, in place of dreary rows of long tables, stark fluorescent lighting, and long food lines, you will find outdoor mobile carts serving sandwiches, a Chill Out area with fluffy couches and bright yellow chairs, and family-style round tables, each with an adult leader and student-captain responsible for cleaning up.

“The new cafeteria makes for a comfortable, efficient environment,” says David Watson, who has taught English at Roosevelt for 12 years. “It encourages socializing but also offers quieter areas for students who might want to just sit and read.”

District officials say the cafeteria redesign project is an ongoing process where student priorities will remain front and center. For upcoming schools, the design team will involve students in the designing process so they can assume more ownership of the space.

Teaching Juneteenth and the Meaning of Freedom

On June 19, 1865, over 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas were informed that the Civil War was won months earlier and they were finally free. Since then, Juneteenth, also known as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Emancipation Day,” “Jubilee Day,” or “Freedom Day,” has been celebrated by Black communities. The date became a federal holiday in 2021 after decades of activists’ and organizers’ hard work to convince our leaders to designate June 19th as a National Independence Day.

Although Juneteenth is commemorated when most K-12 schools are on summer break, it remains a valuable part of our nation’s history and an essential reminder of slavery’s legacy in the United States, and should be taught within other lessons on American history.

To help educators include it in their curricular materials, we’ve compiled the following background reading, lessons, and recommended book lists.

Background Reading and Information

Juneteenth: How and Why It Should Be Taught in K-12 Schools
Sonya Douglass, a professor of educational leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University, spoke to EducationWeek on how and why educators teach about Juneteenth and the broader value for all students in expanding how Black history is taught.

Teaching Juneteenth (Learning for Justice)
The history of Juneteenth acknowledges hard history while also empowering students to be advocates for change.

Juneteenth: Black History for White People
Black History for White People’s podcast series dedicates an episode to the history of Juneteenth, sharing some stories from the past, and tying the through line to why and how people celebrate Juneteenth.

When and How to Talk to Children About Enslavement: Discussion Questions for Educators
This Teaching for Change article suggests questions to “help the early childhood community, families, and social justice activists to get started on this essential discussion.”

Celebrating Juneteenth (for young students)
National Geographic for Kids presents an overview of the history of Juneteenth


BrainPOP presents a short video on the history of Juneteenth, along with classroom activities and discussion questions for elementary students.

Juneteenth Explained
Video-creation software company Vyond created this short, animated video for younger audiences that concisely presents the history of Juneteeth.

Why Juneteenth is Important for America
The Root released this video about the importance of Juneteenth in 2018. It includes information on the violent backlash Black Americans faced from white Americans opposing their freedom.

Meet the Grandmother of Juneteenth
Opal Lee fought for decades to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. Watch her interview on Good Morning America in 2021, after attending the ceremony where President Biden made June 19 a federal holiday.

Lessons & Activities

NMAAHC Kids: Understanding & Celebrating Juneteenth
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a PDF guide to understanding and celebrating Juneteenth for children.

History of Juneteenth and Why it’s Now a National Holiday (grades 6-12)
In this lesson from PBS, students will explore and discuss the history and context around the Juneteenth holiday in the United States. Topics explored include the history of racial injustice in the US, the Civil War and the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally, students are encouraged to explore the modern significance of Juneteenth and its long-term impact.

Teaching Hard History: American Slavery
No discussion or lesson on Juneteenth is complete without an understanding of slavery in the United States. Learning for Justice offers a framework and the ability to build a learning plan around the history of slavery in the United States.

Celebrate Juneteenth!
The National Council of Teachers of English’s Read, Write, Think website offers a classroom activity designed around having students compare Juneteenth and the 4th of July using Venn diagramming.

Recommended Books

Books for Students About Juneteenth
Honor the day that Black Americans gained their freedom with these Read Across America recommended titles to help students learn more about the history and traditions of Juneteenth.

Kids Books Read Aloud: Juneteenth for Mazie
Storytime with Little Book Book reads Floyd Cooper’s picture book.

What Is Digital Literacy?

While the word “literacy” alone generally refers to reading and writing skills, when you tack on the word “digital” before it, the term encompasses much, much more.

Sure, reading and writing are still very much at the heart of digital literacy. But given the new and ever-changing ways we use technology to receive and communicate information, digital literacy also encompasses a broader range of skills—everything from reading on a Kindle to gauging the validity of a website or creating and sharing YouTube videos.

The term is so broad that some experts even stay away from it, preferring to speak more specifically about particular skills at the intersection of technology and literacy.

The American Library Association’s digital-literacy task force offers this definition: “Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”

More simply, Hiller Spiers, a professor of literacy and technology at North Carolina State University, views digital literacy as having three buckets: 1) finding and consuming digital content; 2) creating digital content; and 3) communicating or sharing it.

Finding and Consuming

In some formats, “consuming” digital content looks pretty much the same as reading print. Reading a novel on a basic e-reader requires knowing how to turn the device on and flip pages back and forth, but other than that, it isn’t so different from reading a book. A PDF of a New York Times article looks a lot like the page of a printed newspaper, except that it appears on a screen.

Donald Leu, an education professor at the University of Connecticut and a recognized authority on literacy and technology, describes this kind of digital reading as “offline reading.”

“It’s not interactive, … there’s one screen, and you just have to read it,” he explained. “It’s the same as reading a [paper] page.”

"I read on my iPad when I'm in a car, or when I'm on a plane when I'm going on a trip.  When I'm at home, I read regular books," says Shota, a 3rd grade student at Indian Run Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio.

The added skills needed for this kind of reading take just a few minutes to teach.

In comparison, what Leu calls “online reading,” in which a digital text is read through the internet, requires a host of additional skills. For example, a New York Times piece viewed on the web may contain hyperlinks, videos, audio clips, images, interactive graphics, share buttons, or a comments section—features that force the reader to stop and make decisions rather than simply reading from top to the bottom.

“The text is designed so that no two readers experience it in the exact same way,” said Troy Hicks, a professor of literacy and technology at Central Michigan University.

The reader determines, among other things, when to click on videos or hyperlinks, how long to stray from the initial text, and whether and how to pass the information along to others.

The process of finding digital content to read also requires different skills than finding printed texts. In seeking print materials, students might flip through magazines or head to the library and search through stacks of books. They learn to use a table of contents and an index to locate information within a book.

But part of digital literacy is learning to search for content in an online space. Students have to query a search engine using keywords and navigate those results, including assessing the reliability of particular authors and websites.

Creating Content

Digital literacy also refers to content creation. That includes writing in digital formats such as email, blogs, and Tweets, as well as creating other forms of media, such as videos and podcasts.

Renee Hobbs, a professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island, talks about digital authorship as “a form of social power.” At a weeklong professional-development institute on digital literacy held at URI this past summer, she showed examples of student activists sharing their messages about the Black Lives Matter movement through YouTube videos.

Creating digital content is a “creative and collaborative process that involves experimentation and risk-taking,” she said. There’s more risk-taking than in print writing because digital writing is so often meant to be shared.

Sharing and Communicating

While traditional writing can be a personal endeavor, digital writing is generally intended to be communicated with others. And digital-writing tools are designed to make that easy to do.

As North Carolina State’s Spiers and her co-author, Melissa Bartlett, wrote in a 2012 white paper about digital literacy and learning, “Web 2.0 tools are social, participatory, collaborative, easy to use, and are facilitative in creating online communities.”

"It's on a book, on a paperback book because I've been reading like that since I was kid," says Hareem, a 10th grade student at Mineola High School, Mineola, NY

That makes digital writing a potentially powerful lever for social good, allowing students to “actively participate in civic society and contribute to a vibrant, informed, and engaged community,” as the ALA notes.

It also makes digital writing a potentially dangerous tool—decisions about when and what to share online can have repercussions for a student’s safety, privacy, and reputation.

For that reason, learning about appropriate internet behavior is also a part of digital literacy, many say.

“We need to help kids see they can use digital tools to create things and put things out into the world, but there’s a responsibility that comes with that,” said Lisa Maucione, who attended the URI institute and who is a reading specialist for the Dartmouth public schools in Massachusetts.

Evolving Technology

Because the term “digital literacy” is so wide-ranging, it can cause confusion. What exactly is someone talking about when he or she refers to digital literacy? Is it the consumption, creation, or communication of digital materials? Or is that person discussing a particular digital tool? Do technology skills like computer coding fall under the digital-literacy umbrella as well?

Some experts prefer the term “digital literacies,” to convey the many facets of what reading and writing in the modern era entails.

“The concept should instead be considered plural—digital literacies—because the term implies multiple opportunities to leverage digital texts, tools, and multimodal representations for design, creation, play, and problem solving,” Jill Castek, a research assistant professor with the Literacy , Language, and Technology Research Group at Portland State University, wrote in an email.

Leu of UConn avoids the term altogether.

“Is someone who is ‘digitally literate’ equally literate when searching for information, when critically evaluating information, when using Snapchat, when using email, when using text messaging, when using Facebook, or when using any one of many different technologies for literacy and learning?” asked Leu in an email. “I don’t think so.”

He prefers the term “new literacies,” which he says better conveys how rapidly technology is changing. Other experts have used terms like “literacy and technology,” “multiliteracies,” and “21st century literacies.”

But for now, digital literacy seems to be the prevailing term among educators. “I understand this is the term that is popular today,” Leu said, “just as I understand a newer term will appear in the future that will replace it.”

What exactly is an ‘ineffective teacher?’ California’s definition doesn’t include measures of performance

Even after years of debate and litigation over teacher evaluations and tenure, California has no official definition of what constitutes a bad educator — until now.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must report on whether disadvantaged students have a higher proportion of ineffective, out-of-field or inexperienced teachers than their peers. But to supply that answer, California needed to define, concretely, what an ineffective teacher looks like.

On Wednesday, the Board of Education approved a profile that does not touch on teacher performance: An “ineffective” teacher is now officially one who is improperly assigned or does not have proper credentials.

In less than two months, the board must submit its plan to satisfy the federal law — which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act — to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Its members opted to address the requirement dealing with teachers Wednesday, but leave until later the completion of a formula for identifying low-performing schools, as the law also requires.

California’s new education ratings tool paints a far rosier picture than in the past »

What, exactly, is an “ineffective teacher?”

The state’s new definition mirrors language in the Local Control Funding Formula law, as well as a proposal from the California Teachers Assn. union.

Tom Adams, deputy superintendent of public instruction, said California was using it “because that’s the system we have in place.”

But some education advocates were critical of the decision.

“It refuses to consider teacher effectiveness … as something related to performance and impact on students,” the Education Trust — West, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on closing the achievement gap, wrote in a letter.

Similarly, the Assn. of California School Administrators wrote that the definition misses “a teacher who is fully credentialed but ineffective in instructional practices.”

Some, including Carrie Hahnel of EdTrust-West, have suggested considering teacher turnover and absentee rates to get at how well they are performing — without using the controversial, quantitative evaluation systems that rely on students’ standardized test scores.

Board President Mike Kirst said that he was interested in some of those ideas, but that there wasn’t enough data to justify their use. One board member said the conversation gave her “heartburn.”

How does California identify underperforming schools?

Where No Child Left Behind used a strict system to reward and punish schools for their standardized test performance, Every Student gives states much less.

At the bare minimum, the federal law requires that states identify the lowest-performing 5% of their high-poverty schools, as well as high schools with persistently low graduation rates, and help them improve.

The state recently created the California School Dashboard, a website that uses a variety of metrics to analyze schools and displays the results in a color-coded scheme: red is the worst, blue is the best. A Times analysis found that it was possible to have more than half of students underperforming on standardized tests and still be classified as “good” under this system.

California plans to use the dashboard color ratings to identify its lowest-performing schools: Those deemed red across all measures, or all red with one orange category, will be flagged. But by using that method, experts say, the state will be able to identify only one-third of the number of schools it would need to reach the full 5%.

So the board Wednesday also voted on a motion that said it needed one more year of testing and dashboard data to figure that out, thus missing the federal deadline. After a January meeting, they plan to flesh out their strategy and send it to the government as an addendum.

Board member Feliza Ortiz-Licon voted no, saying she wasn’t convinced that the plan showed precisely how the state would close achievement gaps. And Children Now, an education advocacy group, said using the dashboard model was a bad idea because it collapsed nuanced information into blunt categories.

The whole ineffective teacher definition gives me heartburn.

— California State Board of Education member Ting Sun

What will California do to help low-performing schools improve?

The state has proposed letting county education officials take the lead on holding districts accountable.

The Equity Coalition, an umbrella group representing more than 20 California education advocacy organizations, wrote in a long critique that the state’s education plan “offers far too few details regarding how school improvements will occur.”

Kirst said the lack of detail was deliberate, and part of a long-running effort to not let the federal government direct California’s schools. “The state plan is essentially a contract with the federal government,” he said. “The more details we include, the less flexibility that we have to adjust.”

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed reporting.

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