by Kate Ganim

The education landscape is changing quickly. New technologies and pedagogies, converging disciplines, high costs, preparation for not-yet-existent careers: it’s undeniable that education at all levels is evolving. Students now have a broader range of non-traditional paths available to them, and their needs and experiences vary more than ever. A range of professionals across disciplines are taking steps to make education more inclusive and accessible to historically under-represented populations, working to improve anything from racial or cultural diversity to neuro-diversity. Architecture has a responsibility to evolve its practice in order to support and anticipate these changes in education.

Historically, only a small segment of architects have collaborated with research-based disciplines or made substantial use of post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) to improve learning spaces. There are many precedents showcasing successful use of data and a multi-disciplinary approach to educational design, along with the positive impact that it can have on student experience and learning outcomes. Unfortunately, this approach is far from the norm despite the evidence that it makes the student experience more equitable and engaging.

There are several obstacles facing architects who are interested in a research-based approach. There is rarely a budget available for this type of data collection and analysis, and it can be easily deprioritized or skipped despite its demonstrated success. Thus, the architect can expect to need to educate their client on its indispensability. Also, there is little perceived incentive to invest in the “student experience” since public funding for schools is driven primarily by student test scores (especially for public schools). No broadly accepted evaluation standards exist for POEs or educational space research; as a result, 90% of the architects who use this type of research develop their own surveys and methods in-house. There is no commonly accepted platform on which to share these methods or findings publicly, so many undertaking this work are duplicating or re-creating similar tools and approaches.

On August 7, 2019, AIANY Social Science and Architecture, AIANY Architecture for Education, and AIA National CAE Research Task Force held an event titled: “Learning About Schools: Where Do Design and Research Fit In?” Design and consulting professionals shared their perspectives and approaches around integrating user and client-driven research into the design of educational spaces. It was facilitated by Evie Klein, Co-founder, User Design Information Group, Graduate Center, CUNY, and Michael A. Nieminen, FAIA, Partner, Kliment Halsband Architects. The featured guest speakers were Elliot Felix, Founder of brightspot; Dina Sorensen, Assoc. AIA, Senior Associate, former K-12 Education Leader at DLR Group; and Daniel Baumann, Lead Designer at Henning Larsen. While each of the speakers had their own unique approach, there were common themes throughout:

  • Talk to stakeholders. There are many stakeholders in an educational space. Work with a diverse group of stakeholders that is representative of the community. Take time to understand who they are, what they care about, and what they need. Don’t rely on administrators to tell you what students need: talk to students directly. Treat them like the cultural and community experts that they are. Students can also help to interpret and offer insights on other data that is collected.
  • Take a multi-modal approach. There are a number of ways to collect useful data to gain insights. Qualitative research can include stakeholder interviews or workshops. Quantitative research can include different sensors and heat-mapping techniques, or coding stakeholder interviews. Use multiple types of data to paint a clearer and more robust picture.
  • Integrate feedback throughout the process. Pre- and post-occupancy evaluations are great, but don’t go deep enough. Bring your stakeholders through the process with you. Get their input early and often to ensure that your design direction is aligned with and supportive of their needs and culture.

The mindset should be exploratory, open-minded, and “bottom-up,” leading with curiosity in order to uncover insights or innovative approaches. Alternatively, a “top-down” approach is at risk of seeking evidence to confirm existing assumptions and beliefs.

While architects are not solely responsible for the student experience and engagement, they are in a powerful position to impact students and the future of education. An incredible opportunity lies in cross-disciplinary collaboration with experts in fields like neuroscience, environmental and developmental psychology, and data science, to integrate their insights into physical space.

The uniqueness of each school community plays a significant role. Each has its own “cultural needs.” The goal is not to create the “best learning space,” but rather to create the learning space that is the best fit for that community. Alignment between the physical space and the people who use it is paramount.

Please consider joining these additional conversations about the intersections of social science and design:

Kate Ganim is a designer and entrepreneur with a background in architecture. She built KIDmob and LMNOP Design in San Francisco before moving to Brooklyn in early 2019.