Many schools today understand the need to prepare students for our somewhat unknown future in the modern, global economy and often turn to the built environment as a catalyst for change. They are trading in their identical classroom model for activity-driven, flexible spaces allowing for movement and variety in the learning experience (henceforth discussed as an "innovative learning environment"). Through this, schools envision a future in which teaching, culture, and space align seamlessly creating a campus filled with an intangible “buzz” of learning and engagement. However, changing space is easier than changing practice.

In my 10+ years of researching and working in the educational architecture industry, I have unfortunately toured project after project of award-winning work to see collaborative spaces empty, glass walls covered in paper, locked small group rooms, and lecture instruction in spaces meant for student-led, multi-modal work. The movement towards providing these innovative learning spaces is far outpacing the delivery of professional development and organisational shifts that would allow them to achieve their potential. The gap between design intent and reality is commonplace.

Originally published in “School change: Emerging findings of how to achieve the ‘buzz’” by R. French, 2021, In W. Imms & T. Kvan (Eds.), Teacher Transition into Innovative Learning Environments (pp. 62), Springer.

When categorizing spaces by the alignment of pedagogy and design intent, four scenarios emerge indicated in this matrix. The left half, Traditional Design (i.e. double-loaded corridor, identical classrooms, rows of desks facing a teaching wall) represents the majority of schools today. The right side reflects an Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) design, representing a variety of interconnected space types meant to allow for the most variety in instructional possibilities.

  • The Status Quo - The bottom left quadrant represents the ‘status quo’ – the long-held tradition of educators teaching in a singular classroom utilizing primarily teacher-led instruction.

  • Square Peg, Round Hole - We definitely are seeing more and more of the top left quadrant – deemed ‘square peg-round hole’ – in which educators are advancing their practice and providing a variety of learning experiences regardless of the built space (teachers are awesome!).

  • Wasted Investment - The bottom right quadrant is perhaps the most distressing for a school designer – ‘wasted investment’ – in which we see innovative learning spaces with multiple space types and affordances being used in a traditional manner, failing to take advantage of the spaces’ potential.

  • Success - The goal, however, is the top right quadrant – ‘success’ – in which we see student-centered instruction throughout the innovative learning space. My goal in both research and practice is to ensure more schools end up in this top right quadrant.

Where do you identify with this quadrant? Are you struggling with a square-peg, round-hole scenario or trying to figure out why your district wasted all this money on tons of glass or unused spaces? I would love to hear from you!

It's been nearly 5 years since my last post. In that time, I finished my Fulbright program, completed a PhD, and had two kids (whew!). Throughout this, I have thought about this site a lot, never bringing myself to cancel the domain and knowing that I wanted to come back to it when the time was right.

In my first go, this site was really difficult to maintain. I found myself burdened by perfection and wanting to ensure that every word I typed could be backed up by evidence for fear of internet backlash on my opinions. It was very slow going. This go - in interest of time, I will be more off the cuff and honest with my current opinions and thoughts and just ask for grace. I am sure I'll make a mistake but it's more important to me to ensure that the knowledge I've gained can be helpful to those exploring new learning spaces.

I am still working for DLR Group. This company has been incredibly supportive through all of my life changes and continues to design fabulous schools throughout the country. A lot of my time is spent working locally with the Austin Independent School District. During the implementation of their last bond effort, I was able to review the designs of all schools undergoing major modernizations, ensuring that the design teams aligned their work to AISD's educational specifications (written with best practices and research in mind). This work was incredibly fulfilling and up my alley as I had high impact on many campuses and got to work my research-driven brain constantly. Now that those projects are nearly complete, I am helping with their holistic long-range planning process. This work utilizes an "Equity by Design" framework to ensure that the eventual facilities (or other district shifts in policy or new strategies) focus on students and neighborhoods who have been historically underserved. Again - incredibly fulfilling work that flexes my planning, technical, and facilitation muscles. DLR Group is also leading a team on a scoping project for the 'sequel' to the program behind my PhD, Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) and the Student Experience (my PhD was focused on ILEs and Teaching Change). I am very grateful to love my job.

I plan to write about my work when particularly relevant but will be prioritizing the dissemination of my PhD research. If you'd like to get a head start, you can read the whole thing here:

I'll be breaking it down into bite size chunks throughout the year so stay tuned!

Check out my latest DLR Group Insight!

In 1999, the oft-cited Heschong Mahone study revealing the importance of daylighting was published. The research correlated the prominence of daylighting to improved elementary student test scores, pushing the pendulum away from artificial into natural light, setting the stage for the sun-lit schools we find common today. At scale, the world shifted its reliance on intuition to depend on evidence supporting the integration of daylight above perceived energy savings or minimizing distractions. As I reflect on the ILETC Think Tank in September, I wonder if a sea change around the broader design elements of a school is imminent.

The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC)research project of the Learning Environments Applied Research Network at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia, recently hosted the think tank at Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Part of a three-city international tour, the North American think tank represented five U.S. school districts, the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE), the National School Board Association (NSBA), the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (AIA-CAE), Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University, Columbia University, and Ohalo College of Education in Israel.

How can we get the evidence? Empirical data is a challenge to obtain in schools due to an inability to control all variables, or achieve a large sample size. The Heschong Mahone study was conducted through a sample of over 2,000 classrooms and test scores of 21,000 students. The results were deeply significant. The ongoing Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change project has the potential to influence this type of scale but, as it currently resides in Australia and New Zealand, its potential sample sizes are much smaller than that of the United States.

However, scale is just one way to satisfy the needs of generalizability: Another is control, which spawned a bold idea in the think tank session. Why not create a “living lab” disguised as a typical public school, purpose-built for experimentation? The goal would be to rigorously test the things we have seen work anecdotally–from space variety to agile furniture to transparency to technology integration–within typical constraints, such as public education school district standard accountability metrics, for increased generalizability. This scenario would also allow for systematic testing of various professional learning initiatives and tool kits in the transition to and use of the innovative learning environment.

What would such a school look like? One school leader in the room gave an example of a school consisting of identically designed wings, each with an assortment of operable partitions allowing for various configurations of space, and degrees of openness. One wing could then resemble a traditional, single-cell classroom model with another nearly completely open, and others falling somewhere in between. In this environment, we could investigate a range of space variety, connectivity, and openness. Teachers from one wing may be given purposeful training regarding the use of space while others adopt more organic approaches to the transition. Wings may implement different pedagogical approaches or curricular structures. Timetables could even vary to identify the best amount of time needed to fully utilize opportunities provided by the space. In addition to a variety of design-impact demonstrations, outcomes could include quasi-experimental methodology to obtain evidence regarding the correlation of space, furniture, technology, and training.

What impact are we measuring?

Those in the think tank agreed that academic test scores are not the ideal metric. We must instead think beyond, and measure areas innovative learning environments support most successfully: Student engagement, soft skills, and wellness. Many organizations are already developing such measurement tools. DLR Group is one of those, with the ongoing development of its Student- and Educator-Engagement Indexes.

How can this be accomplished? One of the goals of the think tank was to begin connecting the design industry and academia for funding and feasibility of these research pursuits. The bold idea would require support from the technology industry to assist in its seamless integration, furniture manufactures to outfit the space, and ongoing funding to support research manpower. Research takes time and longitudinal opportunities are especially attractive. Big funding will be key.

This purposeful test environment was one of many ideas percolating throughout the conversation. I left the room feeling optimistic about where next steps may lead. While all the participants have leveraged personal experience as a primary tool to influence their respective organizations in support of innovative learning environments, we need proof to see large-scale change and impact. We have to collect irrefutable volumes of evidence proving the power of design to shift space priorities and impact policy. We need our “Heschong Mahone moment.”

#research #evidence

About Me

My name is Raechel (with an "e"). I help design schools for a living and travel whenever I can (well - used to and pining to start that again!). I started this website as I combined these two favorite things in Melbourne, Australia as a Post-Graduate Fulbright Scholar. I am continuing it now after finishing a PhD in Education and still designing schools. I will chronicle research and schools I love, sharing the exciting things happening and providing lessons learned from my research on how to align your practices and your spaces to achieve your teaching and learning goals.


Feel free to contact me at:

Thanks for visiting!


Subscribe to the RSS feed.