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To Inspire Learning, Architects Reimagine Learning Spaces

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By Allison Arieff

As K–12 schools refocus on team-based, interdisciplinary learning, they are moving away from standardized, teach-to-test programs that assume a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. Instead, there is a growing awareness that students learn in a variety of ways, and the differences should be supported. The students often learn better by doing it themselves, so teachers are there to facilitate, not just to instruct. Technology is there as a tool and resource, not as a visual aid or talking head.

Gensler, a national architecture firm that's working with a broad range of schools -- from primary schools in redeveloping inner cities to NYU Magnet, Wharton, and Duke -- is working with one of the global pioneers, the PlayMaker School in Los Angeles. Behind the venture is GameDesk, which views gaming as an interactive medium for learning. Launched with a sixth-grade class, the PlayMaker program builds on play and explores how its young students can use a variety of tools and games to learn in new ways. Instead of classrooms, PlayMaker School has a suite of spaces that are interconnected physically and visually. There’s an ideation lab, a maker space, and an immersive gaming and learning zone where the students can try out the games they create and the software they develop. [Read more about PlayMaker School here.]

“There’s no teacher at the front,” says Gensler’s Shawn Gehle. “The rooms are like different scenes in a video game. They inspire active learning.

Also in Los Angeles, Wiseburn School District will collocate three charter schools into a renovated 330,000-square-foot building, the former high-security offices of an aerospace firm. Given the radical change in function, “we’re basically hacking an office building, using strategic interventions to reshape it to fit the schools’ project-based curricula and support their combined staffs and 1,200 students,” says Gensler’s David Herjeczki.


Like PlayMaker, Wiseburn moves away from the traditional classroom, opting for neighborhoods of teaching spaces — “pods”— that open out to a large commons area for each school and an atrium that interconnects all three but provides each with a unique address.

When it comes to integrating STEM into classroom space, there are real implications for how teachers interact, says Thaler. “When you put math and science teachers together, they can cross-collaborate on lesson plans. If they’re teaching trigonometry or wave properties in math, they know they have to pull in the physics faculty also.” Schools that embrace STEM end up retraining. “They have to stretch their conception of what’s being taught.”

When Gensler first looked at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey, an independent prep school, its campus planners realized that the STEM program had separate buildings for math and science. “It wasn’t really STEM,” Thaler says. “The new campus plan called for a building that would support a truly interdisciplinary curriculum.” The faculty, administrators, and the design team toured 16 private schools, colleges, and universities on the US East Coast to try to understand the hallmarks of interdisciplinary STEM.

They were inspired by facilities that “let spontaneous collisions happen,” Thaler notes, but the takeaway was less a model than a point of view. Gensler documented it in a paper on STEM education. One of its major findings was that, to succeed, STEM and other interdisciplinary programs need to create propinquity—literally, “nearness”—among their participants.

“We learned that a STEM building is not a linear thing, with math on one side and science on the other,” Thaler explains. “What we designed is like the petals of a flower, with math and science sharing the classrooms and a great melting pot in the middle.”

There are still labs. They operate in two modes: students seated around a large table or working as teams around a lab bench. The lab classrooms can shift easily between the two modes, so they’re slightly larger than tradition dictates. The idea is that you can do a math lab at the table or a science lab at the bench.

The labs have all the traditional equipment, but—designed for mobility and portability—they can be quickly reconfigured. “What’s radical about the building is that it can support the gamut—biology, chemistry, whatever anyone wants to teach,” Thaler says.

Allison Arieff is editorial director at SPUR and writes about architecture and design for The New York Times.

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