The Alignment and Misalignment between the Design and Use of Schools

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. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-7497-9_6

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!