Education Talks: Learning spaces designed together

Teachers, students and other school actors can help to adapt their learning environment, or even design it from scratch. Karen Könings, Associate Professor at Maastricht University, spoke with us about participatory school design, building information modeling, and other topics.

What should be the design process for school environments?

There is no general recipe for how schools should look like. Most important is that a school starts a discussion internally about the pedagogy and educational vision, and from their educational aims, they have to see what seating arrangements fit with that pedagogy and how they can support their ideals for learning and teaching.

What are some examples of architecture aligning with educational vision?

In the Netherlands, De Werkplaats, close to Utrecht, has recently built a completely new school for secondary education, and the same holds for the UCL Academy in London, where they also built a completely new building for their students and teachers. And they both are aligned to their educational vision and the pedagogy which is mainly on project-based work, on authentic tasks, and small groups of students supported by their teachers. So if you want to do more project-based work and to enable group work next to self-directed learning and using e-learning, you need different kinds of spaces than the traditional classrooms.

How can schools adapt existing spaces?

It is of course ideal if you can build a completely new environment, because that enables all your preferences to be built in. But that is of course only possible in a minority of the cases, so much more often schools will adapt their existing school design, their physical spaces. Also in that process, it is important to involve different stakeholders and see if we want to do group work, then the current furniture does not support that, so we have to look for maybe different furniture or arrange the furniture differently in our classrooms. It can also be a bit bigger. If a school thinks the classrooms are too small, too limited to do the pedagogy we want, maybe you can break a wall between rooms.

How are visual tools used in participatory school design?

Especially because everyone has his own experience and expertise, which he or she brings into the process, it is important to visualise what we are talking about, so that we try to create a shared mental model, a shared idea about what the school building will look like. And we can think about different tools. They can be just simple drawings. It can and also has to be more sophisticated later in the process, where we can use software programs like building information modeling, BIM, which enable architects to visualise how the building looks.

Who should be involved in the process?

Both schools I just mentioned, so the UCL Academy in London and De Werkplaats in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, involved the different stakeholders, the teachers, the students, and the managers together with the architects in the design phase, and they also have experienced that this is a challenging process because all have their unique perspectives.

In a recent study, we also asked those stakeholders specifically in interdisciplinary teams to brainstorm about how this process could best be implemented, so how to participatorily design a school building. And we had four groups, and in each group an architect, a teacher, a student and an educational designer. That has resulted in this interdisciplinary model of participatory building design, and this model shows that in the different phases of your building design process, you have the different actors, so the different stakeholders, and they all have a different role in each phase.

So for example, when developing your pedagogy and your educational vision, the architect will be less relevant, while if you think about how the space will look, the architects are more dominant, while in the implementation, they get less important again. So it is a dynamic process and that model can be a tool for practice to plan the process and to monitor it as well.