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Dick Resch: Building Schools Designed to Succeed

Orange County Register | September 16, 2013

By DICK RESCH / For the Register 

Kids across America have just headed back to school. Unfortunately, many of them may be greeted by worn-out desks and broken chairs. More than three-quarters of U.S. schools are in need of repairs.
The federal government is proposing to respond to that need by investing millions of dollars in school construction and modernization. But those dollars must be spent wisely. The schools of yesteryear, with their rows of desks and stair-stepped lecture halls, simply don't work for the students of today. Their stagnating academic performance proves it. 

Educational leaders must instead embrace the technologically driven way that students learn today - and design and build schools that support that shift.
Make no mistake - the design of school facilities has an enormous impact on student performance. Researchers at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom recently determined that a school building's design can affect student performance, for better or worse, by up to 25 percent. Seventy-three percent of students' change in performance was attributable to classroom design elements.
The study looked at a variety of factors. For instance, classrooms that received greater amounts of natural light, featured ergonomically advanced desks and permitted teachers to easily change the classroom layout all correlated strongly with improved academic performance.

In fact, the difference in learning rates between students in the "better" classrooms and those in the "worse" classrooms was equivalent to a full year of educational progress. These findings confirm what designers and educators have known for years. 

Consider the Fuji Kindergarten, a Montessori school in Tokyo, Japan. It was designed to support the school's pedagogical approach by creating large, open areas where students can move around freely, despite the city's tight space restrictions. The oval-shaped building has no fixed walls and furniture can be easily rearranged.

A child draws a mock blood sample from a dog doll as she plays the role of a veterinarian during their work experience activities at KidZania on Sept. 15, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan.
In its 2009 expansion, Virginia's Manassas Park Elementary School made ample use of glass not just to allow natural light to flood in but to create spaces outside the classroom where students could interact and study while still being supervised. 

Architect Sean O'Donnell, whose firm EE&K recently completed a modernization project for Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., stresses the importance of size when designing school facilities. Properly child-sized environments that scale upwards as students get older can combat the perception of schools as large, uninviting structures.
The next generation of schools must also more adeptly incorporate technology. The lives of today's students are more deeply intertwined with technology than any previous group. Forty-three percent of teens find it easiest to learn from the Internet. 

Teachers have noted as much. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 77 percent of teachers say that digital search tools have had a positive impact on student research habits.
Yet even as the impact of school design and new technology on student performance is becoming more apparent, policymakers are investing less in educational facilities. Annual spending on school construction has declined by nearly half - from an average of $20 billion a year between 2000 and 2008 to $11.7 billion this year.

Student learning styles have evolved dramatically in recent years, but young people are being educated in environments that haven't been rethought in decades. Most classrooms still feature heavy, standard-issue desks aligned in neat rows before a lecturer. Too many schools remain cold, drab structures lit by numbing florescent lights instead of natural light. It's no wonder that students have trouble staying engaged in their studies. 

The solution is to treat education infrastructure as a crucial component of education policy. Each school's design should complement the needs of its students as well as its teaching philosophy. What's more, facilities should be created with flexibility in mind, so that, as teaching methods, curricula, and students change over time, so too can learning environments. 

Updating America's education system for current and future generations of students will involve more than changing what goes on in schools; it will require us to rethink school buildings themselves. As the new school year gets underway, educational leaders should respond accordingly.
Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture.

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