School Walls Talk: Leading Through Space Design

contributed by Dr. Robert Dillon

Leading space design isn’t just another item to add to the already busy schedule for school leaders. It is an essential lever of change that can support all of the initiatives in the building.

It is a comprehensive effort to rethink space design. Leading space design will grow the school’s capacity for change, promote a healthy learning culture, and garner the support of the greater community.  It goes well beyond conversations about how new furniture, hacked furniture, and flexible seating can change the learning in the classroom.

Optimizing classroom design has primarily been the role for architects and designers on the larger scale and classroom teachers in their individual spaces. Both groups have made great strides to meet the modern learning needs of students, but these efforts have been limited in their scale and long-term impact because they haven’t placed building and district leaders at the center of the design process.

Leaders that are playing a pivotal role in these conversations are seeing how excellent space design from the outside of the building, all the way to the classroom, leads to powerful benefits.

These benefits include showcasing the vision of the school in a nonverbal way, uniting teachers, students, and leaders, telling the story of the change and innovation taking place in the building, caring in new ways for the whole child, shifting teaching and learning, and finally, building leadership capacity throughout the organization.

The Non-Verbal Vision

Walls talk and every image speaks a thousand words about a school. Leaders are always looking for their vision of success to be understood and embraced in deeper ways by more students, teachers, and parents. Space design is the non-verbal vision of a school, and intentional design can get everyone pursuing the same purpose.

Moving to Commitment

A redesign process elevates more voices into the learning space. It democratizes the decisions about entryways, hallways, classrooms, and libraries. These shared projects help to move an organization from compliance to commitment. Having a role in designing the school from pedagogical design to designing the use of digital tools to the rethinking of the space brings a fresh level of commitment to the work happening throughout the school.

Showcasing Innovation

Schools are changing.

Leaders are supporting this change, yet too much of it is trapped in individual classrooms with a small audience of individuals that both know and understand the changes that are happening. Leaders in the habit of intentional space design can showcase the growth and innovation at their school based solely on how the building speaks on its own and tells the story of students learning in deep and modern ways.

A Place of Caring

Schools can be institutional. Many have been designed to maximize functionality and get as many students through a school day as possible. The mission of learning communities continues to be caring for children, and the space can be a key component. Do students feel a sense of belonging? Do they have spaces that support their many needs? Are leaders redesigning to maximize care, concern, and belonging?

New Ways of Learning

Connected learning that brings students to experts and experts to students is hard to realize in desks and rows. Critical thinking struggles in spaces that aren’t filled with questions and places to explore. Collaboration between classes, grade levels, and students can be maximized when there are common areas that support the movement and space that students and teachers need to design these experiences.

Build New Leaders

Excellent school leaders are swamped in both the urgent and significant tasks of each day. The need to build internal leadership capacity to fully realize a distributed leadership model is central to their long-term effectiveness. Rethinking and redesigning can be a vehicle for building capacity. As teachers and staff see themselves as space designers, they are freed to make other decisions about the learning environment. This empowerment means more and more decisions that support kids by design.

The research continues to support the positive impacts that are possible with changes to the learning spaces. All of this is nudging more and more school and district leaders to see learning space changes as essential to the work as pedagogy and digital changes. Ultimately, these three areas work as a triad for meaningful change.

Every space in every school has room to grow in its design. There are way too many tired spaces that speak loudly to parents, teachers, students, and the community. They can leave people believing that the school says one thing and does another. They can leave people believing that the level of detail for success isn’t present at the school. They can, most importantly, lead people to believe that excellent learning isn’t possible in this space. To begin seeing how space impacts all areas of a learning community, consider these questions.

Outside of the building

  • What message does the outside of the building send? Many people in the community judge their school based on driving by.
  • Does the outside of the building speak to only safety and security or does it tell the learning story?
  • How does the green space showcase a level of excellence?

Entryway of the school

  • How many times do visitors see the word no as they enter the building?
  • Is there welcoming signage from the parking lot to the check-in area?
  • Are there old posters, furniture and artwork near the entryway?
  • Do individuals feel welcomed? How soon do visitors see images of students learning?

Hallways

  • Can students learn concepts by just walking down the hallway?
  • Are hallways filled with learning examples that both showcase learning process and product?
  • What art and design features are displayed in the hallways?
  • What signage speaks to the mission, purpose, and key concepts of the building?
  • Do your hallways tell the non-verbal story of your learning community?

Common Spaces

Libraries, cafeterias, gymnasiums are areas that are seen and used by most students each day. In addition, they are heavily used by the community.

  • What level of design has gone into these spaces?
  • Do they show the level of detail to cleanliness that speaks to the excellence in the building? Do they promote caring and belonging?
  • Are these areas energy creators or energy ‘vampires’? What is their tone? What message do they send to students? Teachers? Visitors? 

Forgotten Spaces

Visit a school’s bathrooms and their teachers’ lounge, and you can learn a lot about the school.

  • Are the bathrooms sanitary and comfortable?
  • Has design played a role in how they have changed over time?
  • Does the teacher’s lounge speak loudly to the professionalism of the staff?
  • Does the teacher’s space feel like a place where teachers would gather to think, reflect, and learn?

The time has come to move beyond furniture and flexibility in the classroom, and begin to lead in a comprehensive way around space design. This work can be an essential lever of change for school leaders as they look to build a modern school that supports the needs of all students.

By leading this way, leaders can begin the conversations and changes needed to shift the culture, community support, and capacity for learning needed for meaningful success for all students.

Dr. Robert Dillon has served as an educational leader over the last twenty years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. He is a Hoonuit Learning Ambassador and authored “The Space” training course for educators.