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Why should intentional design be a building priority?

Spark creativity, nurture student voice and create moments of learning with intentional space design.

6 min read


Why should intentional design be a building priority?

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Over the past five years in conversations with thousands of teachers around the country, one message around learning space design continues to bubble to the surface. Doing this work in our classrooms alone can only produce so many results. If we ever did this work as a building, we would most surely experience a multiplier effect that would be a huge positive for students and teachers.

More school leaders need to elevate the conversation that where students learn matters. It should be part of the tapestry of conversation along with how and what students learn. Because when school leaders establish intentional school design as a priority, incredible results emerge.

Teacher Creativity

In an era when teachers are often reduced to the role of implementer, intentional design can inspire new creativity. Teaching is a creative profession, but in its current reductivist state, many in the profession see their role as implementing the ideas, curriculum and priorities of other people. This deflates inspiration and keeps the best in teaching from rising up.

But schools that prioritize learning environments see fresh energy among teachers. They are excited, not about making their classrooms cute, neat, and fancy, but about designing a learning space according to brain science.

Student Design Teams

Growing the influence of student voice over the essential elements of teaching and learning has always been appealing for school leaders, so student design teams are a perfect opportunity to bring fresh solutions to the table around learning environments. Schools that have high functioning student design teams are allowing students to identify underutilized spaces, spaces that have a negative energy in the building, and spaces that have become tired over time. After students identify problem areas, they are tasked with beginning the process of developing and implementing solutions. Many schools that are using this process have seen microenvironments throughout the building come back to life, and there is a momentum for change that started with the voice and energy of the students.

Intentional Perimeter Design

A lot of energy goes into the design of the ideal classroom floor plan. The “starting with furniture” model of classroom design often creates a blindspot because it fails to optimize the walls of the learning space; these are as important as the furniture. Schools that have been successful with intentional design make sure the elements on the walls promote learning. They remove tired hallway signs that take away from the central message of the school. They encourage teachers to rotate items on walls to keep things fresh and limit the visual noise.

This greater awareness that all of the items on the walls of the school — no matter if they are in the office, entryway, hallway or in classrooms — tell the non-verbal story of the school. They can make the school feel coherent and missional or scattered, tired, and without focus.

Intentional Use of Images

Location, location, location.

Some of the most valuable real estate in classrooms is the space where the visual display resides. This area can support learning in a deeper way if it is optimized throughout the school.

Images anchor learning, and the visual display can play an important role in helping students grow. Schools that focus on intentional design use these displays to build background knowledge about a topic; introduce students to art; showcase images from novels; and view primary sources. Some schools are also using more digital displays to celebrate hard work, keep everyone focused on mission and support internal communications.

Hallways of Learning

Too many square feet of hallway space is left to its own decay. Schools that make intentional design a core priority make good use of their hallways; they are key opportunities for student growth and development. They can inspire, inform and encourage exploration. Buildings focused on this work go beyond the bulletin board to establish the fonts, colors and sizes of things in the hallway. They consider what artifacts (2D and 3D), learning stations and signage can create moments of learning. Some schools are creating active movement tracks that promote physical fitness. Some schools have almost one-third of their square feet in hallway spaces, and leaving this to chance melts the effectiveness of well designed individual classroom spaces.

Tapping into Specialized Knowledge

Schools that take on intentional design allow the wisdom of the collective to grow its influence. It takes the complex modern responsibility of the teacher and begins to diffuse it across all of the professionals in the building. Some schools have tapped educators who teach students with autism to help design classrooms that support all learners. Others have used the wisdom of occupational therapists to think about designing for movement. And still others are using parents with design background as resources. Making intentional design a building priority allows for the cross-pollination of expertise and creates solutions on many fronts.

Healthy Students

Though potable water, air quality and lead-free classrooms should be prerequisites for a classroom space, they are the floor on what it takes to support students with a healthy environment. Movement matters. The learning brain needs to experience movement to optimize knowledge retention, and healthy students need freedom to move throughout the day. Failing to support this need leads to reduced focus, increased restlessness and behavioral issues. Schools thinking about healthy students are also considering how learning spaces and instructional design are intentionally reducing stress and anxiety. School leaders looking for healthy students can’t pass up easy wins from designing spaces throughout the building that support this work.

If schools can make intentional design a priority that goes beyond the work of individual teachers, students will have more spaces where they are comfortable and experience less stress. They will have the choice and ownership to find spaces and places that can support their daily learning. And they will be more prepared than ever to enter an evolving workforce because they will have practiced and learned where they can do their best work on any task.

Robert Dillon, Ed.D, is the director of innovation for the School District of University City in Saint Louis, Missouri. He has the opportunity to speaker around the country on a variety of topics that support learning. His latest books is entitled: Leading Connected Classroom: The Heart and Soul of Learning. 


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