Redesigning School Spaces

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on redesigning school spaces for personalized learning.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


The Highly Personalized Learning Setting: Redesigning School Spaces

Education is no longer confined to four walls.  Technology has made the world a veritable classroom.  But even though students can search the globe for information, learning continues to have a communal aspect.  There will always be a nexus between a student and teacher that occurs; space for them to come together is still an essential part of the exchange, even in one that is virtual.  

Outside of what students can learn online, it is likely they will continue to spend a good portion of their day in a place called school.  Besides educating its members, society depends on schools to serve as caretakers of the children while parents work. This is not likely to change anytime soon.  But the dynamics of the space called school are changing. As the demand for personalized learning grows, so too does the need for us to rethink about how we configure schools and classrooms.  If form truly does follow function, a highly personalized setting begs a different look.

We are in an era where we know much more than we ever have about what it takes for students to be successful in school.  We possess an insider’s view of how the brain functions. As a result, we have a deeper understanding of effective pedagogy.  And we can document the importance of student engagement. Traditional spaces are frustrating for those trying to create the kind of classroom environment that takes each of these into consideration and deliver innovative programs.  If we want to personalize learning, schools and districts need to do their part to transform that which is limiting into something that is genuinely transformative. It’s time for a redo.

Three key things can power the conversation.  First, we need to invest in the right infrastructure.  Machine learning will continue to dominate well into the future.  Whether using wireless personal devices or hard-wired network stations, seamless interaction from any location at any time, in or out of school, is the new gold standard. This applies to access for students, teachers, and parents.  While it may tempt schools and districts to over-rely on wireless technology, current reality requires a dual system to deliver programming until wireless is more reliable.

Second, a variety of different spaces are essential for personalizing learning.  Many assumed a computer-based education would eventually mean less brick and mortar, but this has been a misguided notion from the start.  For all the attention it gets, technology is only part of what fuels education in a knowledge economy. If used only to replace direct instruction, we will fail to use it to its full potential.  

Students are consumers of information.  Information is useless, however, unless converted into knowledge.  Interactions with others and hands-on learning are vital to facilitating the transfer.  Space for one-to-one instruction, project-based learning, cooperative learning, and collaborative learning are all necessary complements that depend on more room, not less.  In a very small school, this is easy to achieve. In larger schools, students and teachers will need to share spaces, requiring new ways of thinking about scheduling and coordination, not to mention allowing for more freedom of movement for students.

Third, hard and soft surfaces that are both functional and comfortable enhance the physical and emotional comfort of the learner.  When we tend to students’ well-being, we remove artificial distractions and create conditions for real learning to occur. Furniture that can be quickly and easily moved to suit a variety of purposes rounds out the personalized environment, tapping a simple and underutilized resource as a catalyst for learning.  Even teachers are opting for mobile desks that look nothing like the behemoths of old, enabling them to have freedom of movement as well.

Schools and districts across the country are taking the lead in creating these types of personalized spaces that are energizing and inventive.  According to Paul Aplikowski, a partner and Educator Planner at Wold Architects and Engineers’ office in St. Paul, times are changing for school architects, too, as they respond to the shift in priorities.  “We used to stay out of the teachers’ way, but that’s changed. What’s been transformative for me is that people now expect architects to create spaces that are inspiring for students.” He thinks a big driver behind the change is the way new generations of students perceive their world.  

“Kids are wired differently today.  They have access to technology, and the level of hyper-personalization they are exposed to is creating a demand at schools, too.  Their world is instantly accessible to them. Schools have to adapt to that,” he says, “or they will lose them.”

Aplikowski and his team see a mix in the demand for personalized space.  He says everyone knows about personalization, but it is not widespread in practice.  “The client has to be ready for it,” he stresses. “We see a reluctance to let change in, especially among teachers who have been successful in the traditional structure.”  They often see personalizing learning as “turning kids loose,” but those in the know know better. If the school or district is reform-oriented, he notes, then the building project is progressive in its design.      

As an architect, he’s excited about the trend toward personalization and sees great potential for learning.  “I find myself in a very different position the last few years, having to advocate for what future schools should look like.  What’s been done before continually comes up, but in our cutting-edge designs, learning studios have replaced the classroom.” The design conversation encourages teachers to think about how they are doing things.  Where they land on paper covers the spectrum. “None of the classrooms are like what we did 10 years ago. More are along the lines of being open and flexible.”

What teachers want, he suggests, is ultimate flexibility, and that comes in the form of being able to reconfigure the space easily.  “They want a Swiss army knife for their space. Typically, furniture, technology, and walls are the keys to making space flexible.”

Designers can do anything architecturally, but barriers like a traditional school culture or the budget can be roadblocks to innovation.  However, Aplikowski is surprised at what they’ve been able to do. For example, open areas are very inexpensive and can completely change the look and feel of a space.  When people see the effect, it changes their thinking. And while features such as glass are more expensive, they provide natural light and more open sight lines. Schools will trade other things to make them affordable.  However, if the owner isn’t willing to make those trades and seeks to build both traditional and innovative designs into one building, costs increase.


Photo courtesy of Wold Architects and Engineers


One good example of how new spaces are dotting the landscape is Riverview Elementary School in Farmington, Minnesota, located just outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  They created a multi-age setting by renovating an old, unused locker room. The results were stunning. Large and small spaces are the primary feature; moveable glass walls and doors make the space altogether flexible.  Students are free to move about and find what is comfortable for them. Spread throughout the design are spaces for direct instruction and small conference rooms. The space cost nothing more than it would have to build traditional classrooms.  What made it different was the vision for teaching and learning the teachers and principal had in mind when they began the planning process with Wold Architects and Engineers.         

Photo courtesy of Wold Architects and Engineers

New designs for schools sometimes stretch the imagination of parents and community members, who often have to pay for renovation or new buildings.  But Aplikowski finds they are open. “What feels like a new concept for schools has already made its way into the buildings adults work in, which are increasingly designed for more collaborative work, so to some degree, it’s natural for them to think schools should be the same way for collaboration and working together.”  


Photo courtesy of Wold Architects and Engineers

Students, he notes, love when they get to be part of the design.  When he visits with students once they are in the new spaces, they say they love the freedom, they love being trusted to do what they need to do.  A lot of the things the adults worry about happening simply don’t pan out. “Kids can focus, and the expanded uses of technology do work. If you give kids responsibility, they tend to take that responsibility to heart.  If you treat them with dignity, they will behave with dignity,” he maintains.


Ready to redesign your space?  Aplikowski encourages teachers and principals to find someone in your organization who is already doing it, and empower them to do it more.  “We’ve done some small things that start the process, like opening up a wall between two rooms, then study what comes out of that.” He also recommends visiting places that have reconfigured existing space or built new designs altogether.  

Everyone wants schools to be everything to everyone, do more with less, and ensure success for all students.  Schools can fulfill the promise, but not without help, and not without changing simple things like where walls should and should not exist.  Thinking outside the proverbial box that is the traditional classroom is quite literal in this case. Timing has never been better.

If you’d like to speak to Aplikowski directly, you can reach him at 651.227.7773 or email him at