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Design for learning

Today's educational facilities -- not your parents' schools anymore

By Lisa Porterfield

Open-office "advisory" workstations at the Avalon School.



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University of Georgia

(CNN) -- If you were in high school when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was at the top of the charts, chances are you spent your day moving from one 45-minute class to another, with a different subject each period.

In class, you likely spent most of your time sitting at your desk, listening to lectures and memorizing facts. And the only places you probably could meet with other students were at your locker or in the cafeteria.

While these types of traditional schools have served their purpose for decades, new models of teaching and learning have come on the scene. To prepare students for an evolving information-based society, architects are designing innovative schools to support these changes.

"Several major educational trends are shaping the planning and design of 21st-century schools," said Jeffery Lackney, an architect and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Personalized learning

Some educators say they recognize different learning styles require unique learning environments.

"Instruction and schools are now being designed around the needs of kids," said Leigh Colburn, principal of Marietta High School in Marietta, Georgia.

"We've grown up in a consumer-oriented, choice-oriented society," Colburn said. "And this millennial generation that's coming up -- they're used to choices, they're used to being able to make decisions, and we have to give them more freedom in a structured way."

In such an environment, students can set their own agendas with teachers who act as advisers. Some teachers focus on collaborative projects that link to the real world, such as building a community garden.

In response to these trends, designers are replacing traditional classrooms with "studios" that contain storage areas for long-term projects and spaces for individual, small-group and large-group work.

At the Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the school's 120 students develop their individual educational programs, you won't find corridors or traditional classrooms. Instead, at the center of the building is a common area, surrounded by rooms that house a science lab, seminar spaces and studios with open-office student workstations.

Changing classrooms

"It's not like a factory anymore," Lackney said. "One-size-fits-all schools don't work. ... Schools are being built with a variety of spaces that meet the needs of individual learners."

There is a push to build smaller schools, with smaller class sizes. When redesigning large school buildings, architects reconfigure schools into "neighborhood groupings" and remove corridors to make more spaces for learning.

Dr. Kenneth Tanner, an architect and professor at the School Design and Planning Laboratory at the University of Georgia, said natural light is shown to improve behavior and test scores. Designers also consider factors such as energy-efficient spaces that maximize the use of sunlight and have good indoor air quality.

Finding ways to integrate learning is another growing trend in school design. For example, "if a school has solar panels, they can be used as an exciting new way to teach math and science," Lackney said.

Getting away from centers of technology like the audiovisual storage closet from decades past, results in improvements right at the teacher's fingertips, such as classrooms with ceiling-mounted LCD projectors.

"Schools are completely moving away from the computer lab and infusing technology throughout the entire building," Lackney said.

As portable electronics enable students carrying handheld PDAs and wireless laptops to learn anywhere, at anytime, the question arises as to whether the school building itself could become obsolete.

According to Lackney, "school planners are experimenting with the concept of virtual schools."

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