Developing the Renaissance Mind

Jennifer Busch

According to the Program for International Student Assessment, K-12 students in the United States continue to track flat on academic achievement tests while other countries—most notably Singapore, Finland and Canada—post modest gains year after year. The net result is that the U.S. is experiencing a slow but steady slip in the ranks of the world’s best-educated school-age populations, which does not bode well for American competitiveness on the global stage in the years to come.

According to Steve Turckes, Principal and K-12 Education Global Market Leader at Perkins+ Will in Chicago, this troublesome trend is all the talk among educators and school administrators, and is heavily influencing how and what—and by association where—we teach our children. The school of tomorrow will be focused on preparing our youth to hold their own in a highly competitive, global workforce, while giving them the knowledge and critical thinking skills to be well-informed members of society. “There is an interesting dialogue going on about what it’s going to take to get there,” says Turckes.

A multi disciplinary approach to learning—and facilities design

Many education experts have already concluded that the level of educational excellence required of the future work force cannot happen in the siloed, single-disciplinary approach to elementary and secondary education that characterized the design of our schools throughout much of the 20th century. Some are now suggesting that something more akin to the old-fashioned, one room schoolhouse—with multiple grades and subjects interacting in communal space—offers a better model for schools (albeit minus the dusty chalkboard, and with a lot more technology thrown in). The changes sweeping corporate America might also hold a clue to the ideal form for the “school of the future.” Turckes cites one recent Perkins+Will school project called CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies), which is part of the Blue Valley School district in Overland Park, Kan. “During programming we were looking for other school models that we could learn from,” he explains. “Ultimately we realized that we were looking in the wrong place.”

Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) in Overland Park, Kan., designed by Perkins+Will. Photographed by Steinkamp Photography

Most business environments today embrace a collaborative, multi disciplinary approach to problem solving. By contrast, most schools are still “hanging on to a silo approach,” says Turckes of the single-discipline focus of moving from one subject to another in 50-minute blocks throughout the school day. “But the world doesn’t really work that way. We all bring different skill sets to the table as we need them.”

To better address the need for these types of multi disciplinary and critical thinking skills that are increasingly valued in the workplace, today’s learning environments need to create opportunities for collaborative, project-based learning—in the curriculum and supported by the physical environment. Math, Science, Literature, Art, Music, etc. must be treated with a more integrated approach, not as separate, unrelated subjects. “A new project offers a great opportunity to have a conversation with the client about what education should look like in the future,” says Turckes. “The school clients that get it also realize that the change is pretty profound.”

To accommodate these new ideals, the physical environment might look more like CAPS, where true, project-based instruction takes place in multidisciplinary teams in flexible space featuring dedicated collaboration areas, borderless classrooms, state-of-the-art technology integration, marker boards on walls, and storage areas for 2D and 3D media.


Creativity and Innovation

One important theme that frequently rises to the top in conversations about the future of education is “creativity and innovation.” Not coincidentally, these are often the same words used to describe successful individuals and enterprises in the business environment. As Trung Le, a Principal in the Chicago office of Cannon and a key leader in the firm’s education group explains, “The corporate office is turning into a learning environment, rather than a working environment. Today we need to be lifelong learners. Everything is pointing toward the Renaissance mind.”

Le agrees that there is a strong trend toward multi disciplinary teaching, which leaves behind the notion of square classrooms repeated over and over again throughout a school building. Increasingly, adaptable classrooms that can be reconfigured in real time for a variety of learning scenarios are preferred. Cannon’s recent project for North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Ill., features “learning studios” with sliding glass panels opening to project/research spaces that can be utilized as needed. “It is a dynamic, studio-like environment,” Le says.

“People can no longer afford to have isolated expertise. Learning comes from a collision of disciplines, more than a pure discipline.” Consequently, schools are turning into project-based learning environments that emphasize experiential learning. “This is not a new concept,” he says, “but it has been re-discovered and relabeled.”

Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, Champaign, Ill., designed by Cannon Design. © Steinkamp Photography / Cannon Design.

Another emerging pattern that Le predicts will become more prevalent in the future is the “flipped classroom.” In flipped learning environments, students absorb lessons independently by various means outside the classroom—for example through self-directed learning or a videotaped lecture—and class time is reserved for homework or project work related to the subject matter. The teacher’s role during class time is to facilitate individual students’ learning on a one on one basis. “This goes on throughout the day in class and during blocked hours after class, giving students the ability to be supported when they need it,” he says. This type of radical change—which does not come without its skeptics, and the need for a strong group of first adopters to bring the rest of the community along—is reflective of a general trend toward more individualized teaching that accommodates different learning styles and speeds.

“This pattern further calls into question the concept of the self-contained classroom,” observes Le. “What is needed is learning spaces of different sizes and scales. You may need a place of solitude, or a place where teachers of different expertise are aggregated together.”



The Evolving “Library”

One area of the education environment that has undergone tremendous change is the library—now more often referred to as the “learning resource center.” In Le’s flipped classroom model, the learning resource center might be the site for teacher aggregation, but even in more traditional models, the library as we knew it throughout much of the 20th century is quickly becoming a thing of the past. “We are seeing the reinvention of the library,” agrees Stefan Hastrup, a principal at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop in San Francisco. “Books are still important, but schools have gone from about 80% hard copy to 70 to 80% digital media.”

The learning resource center has become more than a space to house materials and support quiet, heads-down work, as schools try to respond to the differences in the ways students learn. “Many schools don’t have places where meeting can happen,” says Hastrup. “Instead of being an isolated, quiet environment, the LRC might be an impromptu gathering space, or a place where small groups of students can break out to work on projects.” Mary Griffin, also a principal at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, notes that multipurpose rooms are also popular for this purpose, with mobile technology expanding the range of options.

School in Ross, Calif., designed by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. Photographed by David Wakely.

Griffin observes that sweeping social and technological changes are also influencing the design of other spaces throughout school buildings. Labs are receiving particular attention to address the dearth of Americans educated in science and engineering. Better and expanded weight rooms and fitness centers—once accessible to athletes only—are being made available to general student populations to encourage physical activity and address issues of childhood obesity. Schools are trying to maximize the use of outdoor teaching and gathering spaces, especially in hospitable climates, and edible schoolyards teach lessons in proper nutrition and supply school cafeterias. A focus on sustainability is also prevalent. “There is an awareness of the need for healthier environments,” says Griffin. Increasingly, the building itself becomes a teaching tool, as students are encouraged to interact with their physical environment and learn from its sustainable features. “Schools are searching for a way to bring tactile experiences amidst all the technology,” adds Hastrup.


As for technology, its influence is obviously profound, and continues to impact both the form and function of the school building. Cables and conduit are disappearing in favor of wireless technology, which enables a more fluid, interactive way of learning, so teachers and students are no longer tethered to physical classrooms. The “computer room” has disappeared as technology is seamlessly integrated throughout the learning environment. But therein lies a cautionary tale, too. “There is a misconception,” says Le, “that if you take any space and add computers, that will make it a 21st century learning space.” What school districts need to be thinking about now is the bigger picture: Curriculum that fosters critical thinking, creativity, and innovation—and holistic physical environments to support them.


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