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Learning Environments for Tomorrow

To build or renovate a school in the 21st century is no easy feat. When you consider that many schools were built 40-plus years ago, educators and architects are often challenged with how to design spaces where learning is flexible and meets the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s digital children.

The 84 educators and architects who turned out for last week’s Programs in Professional Education institute, Learning Environments for Tomorrow: Next Practices for Educators and Architects (LEFT), are a testament to the challenges faced by those reenvisioning and rebuilding our schools.

“It’s an interesting moment of time for architectural theory and learning theory but there is little research on the best or next facilities,” says Lecturer Daniel Wilson, Ed.M.’94, Ed.D.’07, who cochaired LEFT. “The intent of this institute is to explore the unknown and be inspired.”

Now in its third year, LEFT examines key principles of teaching and designing innovative K–12 learning environments. LEFT is a collaborative effort between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). GSD Adjunct Professor and LEFT Cochair Maryann Thompson says there is an important relationship between pedagogy and architecture, which can shape behavior, making the joint venture particularly effective.

Over three days, participants ruminated on four key factors — collaboration, technology, sustainability, and engagement — through plenary sessions, intensive workshops, and small-group discussions. The latter became a unique aspect of the program in that participants worked in small teams to directly apply their combined understandings in one of several school-building design focus areas. Wilson said each team was given a large school site in Massachusetts where they picked an area like a library, classroom, or play space, and created a plan on how to improve and apply emerging insights from different disciplines to the design of the school. To help the participants, each group was aided by graduate students from HGSE and GSD. At the end of the institute, each group presented its proposal to be critiqued by a group of judges.

For many participants, who traveled from 15 states and eight countries and are in various stages of construction, the institute was a transformative experience.

James Rogers, an architect from Norwalk, Conn., invited Mark Macrides, a project manager for New Canaan County Schools in New Canaan, Conn., to attend LEFT with him. “Any time you can step outside of a setting and build a new foundation can only be positive,” says Rogers, noting he has worked with the New Canaan County Schools for several years.

Currently in the midst of a master plan for a middle school renovation, Macrides and Rogers found the institute provoked questions and discussions about their work. “It’s an architectural hazard that we tend to focus on how it looks,” Rogers says. However, after listening to education planner and architect Frank Locker’s session, Visioning and Beyond: Creating and Launching Effective Innovations, Rogers says it changed his perspective, leaving him to think more about the “organization of space and visionary thinking.”

Meanwhile, Macrides says he feels the institute provided helpful tools to bring back to the school. For instance, he notes the importance of considering professional development as part of new facilities. “We are building innovative facilities and that requires professional staff development to use those spaces to their full advantage,” he says.