By Dick Resch
Special to the Las Vegas Tribune
Kids have just headed back to school. Unfortunately, many of them may
be greeted by worn-out desks and broken chairs. More than
three-quarters of U.S. schools are in need of repairs.
The federal government wants to respond by investing millions of
dollars in school construction and modernization. Those dollars must
be spent wisely. The schools of yesteryear, with their rows of desks
and stair-stepped lecture halls, don’t work for the students of today.
Their stagnating academic performance proves it.
Educational leaders must embrace the technologically driven way that
students learn today — and design and build schools that support that
The design of school facilities has an enormous impact on student performance.
Researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Salford recently
determined that a school building’s design can affect student
performance, for better or worse, by up to 25 percent. Seventy-three
percent of students’ change in performance was attributable to
classroom design elements.
The study looked at several factors. Classrooms that received greater
amounts of natural light, featured ergonomically advanced desks, and
permitted teachers to easily change the classroom layout all
correlated strongly with improved academic performance.
The difference in learning rates between students in the “better”
classrooms and those in the “worse” classrooms was equivalent to a
full year of educational progress.
These findings confirm what designers and educators have known for years.
Consider the Fuji Kindergarten, a Montessori school in Tokyo, Japan.
It was designed to support the school’s pedagogical approach by
creating large, open areas where students can move around freely,
despite the city’s tight space restrictions. The oval-shaped building
has no fixed walls, and furniture can be easily rearranged.
In its 2009 expansion, Virginia’s Manassas Park Elementary School made
ample use of glass — to allow natural light to flood in — and to
create spaces outside the classroom where students could interact
while still being supervised.
Architect Sean O’Donnell, whose firm EE&K recently completed a
modernization project for Stoddert Elementary School in Washington,
D.C., stresses the importance of size when designing school
facilities. Properly child-sized environments that scale upwards as
students get older can combat the perception of schools as large,
The next generation of schools must also more adeptly incorporate
technology. Today’s students are more deeply steeped in technology
than any previous group. Forty-three percent of teens find it easiest
to learn from the Internet.
Teachers have noted as much. According to the Pew Internet and
American Life Project, 77 percent of teachers say that digital search
tools have had a positive impact on student research habits.
Yet even as the impact of school design and new technology on student
performance is becoming apparent, policymakers are investing less in
educational facilities. Annual spending on school construction has
declined by nearly half — from an average of $20 billion a year
between 2000 and 2008 to $11.7 billion this year.
Student learning styles have evolved dramatically, but young people
are being educated in environments that haven’t been rethought in
The solution is to treat education infrastructure as a crucial
component of education policy. Each school’s design should complement
the needs of its students as well as its teaching philosophy.
Facilities should also be created with flexibility in mind, so that,
as teaching methods, curricula, and students change, so too can
Updating America’s education system will involve more than changing
what goes on in schools; it will require us to rethink school
buildings themselves. As the new school year gets underway,
educational leaders should respond accordingly.