School Facilities

Online Lesson Contents



Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Research About Learning and School Environments

Part 3: Design Factors for Successful Learning Environments

Part 4: Web Resources

A school's physical learning spaces are an educator's first technology. Educators and students spend a majority of their time within a 900 square foot classroom setting. The characteristics of these physical spaces have a strong impact on what learning will take place. A 1995 report from the U.S. Congress Office of Assessment found that two in three schools in the United States are either unsafe or unsuitable for student learning. Over 74% of the K-12 school buildings in the United States were built prior to 1970. A well known futurist states that a teenager's bedroom is technologically more sophisticated than the average K-12 classroom. Chances are good that a K-12 educator in the United States will be involved in at least one construction project during the course of their career. This module is aimed at helping educators understand issues related to physical learning spaces and learning.


  • Students will understand at least three relationships between physical learning spaces and student learning.
  • Students will be inspired to draw a classroom floor plan that supports a variety of learning experiences and exhibits understanding of materials from this module.
  • Students will describe at least four points that need to be considered when planning and developing school facilities for the next 30 years.



Read materials in this online lesson and follow links to other World Wide Web sites.

Go to the threaded discussion forum titled, "Online Lesson 3- School Facilities," and respond to the following question:

How does form support function in your current school? How would you improve your current learning space? What improvements would you suggest for the larger school environment?


What are three important ideas that you extracted from this module's web resources concerning school learning environments?

Go to Part 2- Learning and School Environments

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Our school facilities are a tangible symbol of our commitment to education...

Part 2: Research About Learning and School Environments

This module contains a rich collection of materials from the World Wide Web. In going through this material students should see that: 1) physical spaces are a teacher's first technology; and, 2) classroom learning environments play a crucial role in supporting or undermining academic achievement.

How how do physical environments support learning? Gary T. Moore responds to this question in article titled, "Learning and School Environments." Gary is a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the Director of the Children's Environments Research and Design Group. This article is presented through Edutopia- the newsletter of George Lucas' Educational Foundation.

Consider the following questions as you examine this article:

  1. How does school size affect learning?
  2. What affect do such architectural features as windows, heating, and air conditioning have on students and teachers?
  3. How do my personal experiences as a student and teacher support/refute Gary Moore's research?


Learning and School Environments
by Gary T. Moore, Ph.D., Professor

Children's Environments Research and Design Group
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


It is no secret that there is a crisis in America's school buildings. One urban district, for example was recently found to have more than 10,000 fire code violations in its schools. A separate inspection in the same district found fire doors that didn't work, classroom doors that didn't close, broken toilets, crumbling plaster, potholed playgrounds, and malfunctioning heating systems.

Nationwide, 74 percent of school buildings were built before 1970 and 12 percent are considered inadequate, because they are too old, too small, have deteriorating mechanical systems and/or seriously need window replacement.(1)

The urgency of the situation is obvious. Our school facilities are a tangible symbol of our commitment to education, and the message is not lost on students. Student attitudes about education are a direct reflection of the quality of their learning environment, according to a Carnegie Foundation study.(2)

Many professional educators and others understand that the physical characteristics of schools can directly influence learning, while some don't even think about them. Despite the importance of the issue, there is relatively little hard research on the topic. What evidence there is counsels us that the quality of the physical environment of educational facilities does matter to the process of learning and to educational achievement.


Consider a few examples:

Small schools are better. Relative to large schools (1,500 or more students), smaller schools (around 500 students) offer more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and to exercise leadership roles.(3) Student satisfaction is higher, participation in student organizations is greater, crime levels are lower, and student misconduct is less serious in small schools.(4) Other things held constant, more classes are taken per student, math and verbal ability is higher, and overall student achievement is higher in smaller schools. Smaller schools benefit African-American and urban students in particular.(5)

Smaller class sizes and lower class density are better. Another feature on which there is considerable evidence and which has powerful architectural implications is class size and density. As class size decreases, voluntary participation increases, classroom management improves, student attitudes improve, teacher stress decreases, and teachers are more likely to try innovative teaching techniques.(6) Conversely, high density conditions have been found to lead to increased aggression, decreased social interaction, and greater noninvolvement. In addition, as class size decreases (e.g., around 15 students with 1 teacher), students outperform matched groups of students in larger class sizes (over 20 per class) on all subjects, but especially in reading and mathematics (average improvements of 15%). These results are the same even when the larger classes have the additional benefit of a full-time teacher aid. The findings are consistent for all K-3 grade levels and in rural, urban, suburban, and inner-city locations.(7) Follow-up studies have shown that students in smaller class sizes in the early primary grades still have significant advantages two years later. Performance gains in different schools ranged from 11-34%, with the greatest gains being for inner-city schools and minority students.(8)

Other architectural features affect learning. There is empirical evidence about a range of other architectural factors affecting education. For example: [1] Thermal factors affect task performance, attention spans, discomfort, and student achievement.(9) [2] Short-term noise and poor acoustics are linked to classroom distraction and to lower student and teacher morale.(10) [3] Long-term noise from nearby streets leads to significant increases in blood pressure, decreased concentration, increased errors on difficult tasks, and greater likelihood of giving up on complex tasks.(11) [4] Spatial density and crowding increase behavioral problems, aggressive behavior, and distraction on complex tasks, and decrease satisfaction.(l2) [5] Classroom furniture layouts influence persistence, participation, and attitudes toward class and other students.(13) [6] Windowless classrooms lead to more negative student and teacher attitudes.(14) [7] And private or secluded study spaces reduce visual and auditory interruptions, increase privacy, contribute to longer attention spans, lead to more student questions, make learning materials more accessible, and increase literature use.(15)

In summary, there is mounting evidence that many characteristics of the physical, designed environment of schools can and do affect attitudes, behaviors, and academic achievement. Some of these effects result from a direct impact of built form on education, while others are indirect linkages between architectural characteristics and intervening psychological, physiological, and behavioral factors like cognitive fatigue, distraction, motivation, emotional affect, anxiety, or communication.(16) The bottom line is that a well-designed and well-maintained facility can, and do, make a difference in our children's lives.


1.Schoolhouse in the Red: A National Study of School Facilities and Energy Use (Arlington: American Association of School Administrators, 1992)

2. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, An Imperiled Generation: Saving Urban Schools (Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1988).

3. R.G. Barker and P.V. Gump, Big School, Small School (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964).

4. W.J. Fowler, Jr., "What Do We Know About School Size? What Should We Know?" Paper presented to the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 1982.

5. J. Garbarino, "Some Thoughts on School Size and its Effects on Adolescent Development," Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 9 (1980): 19-31.

6. Fowler, op. cit.; H. Pate-Bain, C.M. Achilles, J. Boyd-Zaharias, and B. McKenna, "Class Size Does Make a Difference," Phi Delta Kappan, Nov. 1992: 253-256. See also review in B. Miner, "Students Learn Best in Small Classes: Tennessee Study Follows 6,500 Children for Four Years," Rethinking Schools January/February 1992: 15.

7. B.A. Nye, J. Boyd-Zaharias, B.D. Fulton, and M.P. Wallenhorst, "Smaller Classes Really Are Better," American School Board Journal May 1992: 31-33.

8. C.M. Achilles, "The Effect of School Size on Student Achievement and the Interaction of Small Classes and School Size on Student Achievement," Unpublished manuscript, U of North Carolina-Greensboro, Sept. 1992.

9. C.W. McGuffey, "Facilities," in H.J. Walberg (ed.), Improving Educational Standards and Productivity (Berkeley: McCutchan, 1982): 237-288.

10. G.W. Evans and S. Cohen, "Environmental Stress," in D. Stokols and I. Altman (eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology (New York: Wiley, 1987): 571-610.

11. G.W. Evans, W. Kliewer, and J. Martin, "The Role of the Physical Environment in the Health and Well-being of Children," in H.E. Schroeder (ed.), New Directions in Health Psychology Assessment" (New York: Hemisphere, 1991): 127-157.


13. C.S. Weinstein, The physical environment of the school: A review of the research, Review of Educational Research, 1979, 49: 577-610.

14. S.B. Ahrentzen, G. Jue, MA. Skorpanich, and G.W. Evans, "School Environments and Stress," in G.W. Evans (ed.), Environmental Stress (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982): 224-255.

15. G.T. Moore, "Effects of the Spatial Definition of Behavior Settings on Children's Behavior," Joumal of Environmental Psychology, 6 (1986): 205-231.

16. See rev. by G.W. Evans, "Learning and the Physical Environment," in I. Falk and L. Dierking (eds.), Public Institutions for Personal Learning: The Long-Term Impacts of Museums (New York: American Association of Museums, in press). See also G.T. Moore and J.A. Lackney, "School Design: Crisis, Educational Performance, and Design Patterns, Children's Environments," 1994, 10(2), 99-112.


Extending research into reality, what schools are there that model some of the best practices described in Moore's work from your own personal experience? The School Facilities chapter of Learn and Live, a book by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, contains a sampling of some national school facility models. Here are a few school snapshots:

Butler Did It- When Benjamin Butler Franklin Middle School of Technology in Lowell, Massachusetts, replaced a facility built in 1882, innovation and technology were watchwords.

Building on Local Traditions- Coyote Canyon Elementary School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, reflects the area's rich cultural traditions: Each classroom is built around an outdoor courtyard containing a Native American wickiup, an Azetc-style pyramid, a mission bell, or a vineyard where students can experience history.

Back to the Drawing Board- Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia, seemed a model of modern amenities, but there was no plan in place for classroom technology. The principal worked with designers to include a data network infrastructure and arrnaged with Apple to install computers and make the school a demonstration site.

Consider the following questions as you explore this material:

  1. How do you think schools and communities garnered support for these projects?
  2. What elements do these schools have in common?
  3. How would teaching and learning be different for you in these schools?

Go to Part 3- Design Factors for Successful Learning Environments

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Part 3: Design Factors for Successful Learning Environments

As we look into the future, the only sure thing is continuing change in technology and education....




As educators plan new physical spaces for learning, a number of different considerations present themselves. What points would you consider? Anne Meek, an Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Virginia Beach, VA writes about some of her considerations in the following article.


Checking School Designs Against the Crystal Ball

by Anne Meek


An ability to see into the future would be a useful asset in planning a neweducational facility. If school planners of the 1960's and 1970's had been able to foresee the personal computer revolution, they could have headed off costly electrical retrofitting and allowed countless more students to enjoy the benefits of information technologies. As we look into the future, the only sure thing is continuing change in technology and education. How can we avoid making the same mistake? The following points are offered not as prophecy, but as a way to evaluate your plans against current trends.


Ensuring Versatility of Spaces
Do square footage allocations ensure versatile use of spaces for instruction? In the first place, ensuring versatility requires adequate square footage. State requirements for square footage are minimums, which are often insufficient for flexible use. Second, learning activities increasingly take place in three forms: individual small-group, and large-group-and all three forms may occur within the same classroom at the same time. Therefore, provisions for all three must be included within instructional spaces. What's more, now that students use tools other than papers and pencils, instructional areas should include workshop space and production studios. Third, storage space has always been at a premium in schools, and the trend towards saving student work for portfolios and exhibitions creates a demand for more storage than ever before. Providing extra storage space in each classroom can prevent clutter and inconvenience.


Integrating Technology Throughout the Building
Do the plans allow for present and future uses of technology integrated throughout the facility? Conduits and cable trays for electricity, phone lines, and other networking cables should be designed to reach everywhere instructional and administrative efforts may occur. Even when budget considerations prevent installation of an ideal amount of wiring, having the conduits available and accessible can considerably cut the cost of future installations, upgrades, and maintenance. The wiring scheme should support computers in the main classroom spaces, not just against the wall. Distance learning and multimedia presentations are becoming much more common, so every classroom should be able to serve as a mini-theater, with optimum monitor placement and sound clarity and amplification. The trend towards smaller, more portable, and possibly wireless computers means that schools will need secure storage areas for equipment that is not lent out.


Providing for Multiple Uses and Users
Do the plans allow for multiple uses of school spaces by a variety of community groups? Facilities planners must pay careful attention to access, supervisability, and security. Separate outside entrances should be provided for any parts of the building that might be opened to public use, including the auditorium, the gym, and the cafeteria. Basic services-restrooms, concessions, and pay phones-should be readily available in areas intended for public use. Areas not in use need to be secured to prevent unnecessary access. And all areas should be accessible and comfortable for a wide range of people, including those with disabilities.


Ensuring a Quality Environment
Will the plans ensure a stimulating and comfortable environment for learning? Will the new school, as a public structure, create feelings of belonging and pride in the hearts and minds of its users? In our mobile society, with extended families rare, homeless children in abundance, and gangs as substitute families, planners must strive to strengthen emotional attachments to school. Schools should be a home away from home for the people who study and work in them. Economies of scale, as represented in larger school buildings, are misleading, because they make it much more difficult to establish a sense of community. For schools, "smaller is better," according to research by Moore and Lackey 1 And Crumpacker 2 echoes that a home-like atmosphere fosters an intimate relationship between students and schooling. All instructional lighting should be variable and adaptable according to purposes. Spot lighting is ideal for learning centers, and rheostats can vary levels of lighting for large-group and small-group activities. For today's hands-on activities, noise abatement is important. Soft surfaces, adequate square footage for the separation of groups, fabric baffles or fiber art, fountains, and sound-proofing will all help keep distracting sounds to a minimum. School designers must also provide a flexible HVAC system so the school is comfortably heated and cooled, regardless of the configuration of moveable walls or of the range of activities occurring within. Concerns for energy efficiency should not outweigh the need for adequate ventilation and fresh air, so include windows that open. Today's teachers, in their roles as coaches, facilitators, and mentors, need spaces for conferring with students, parents, and each other, as well as phones and computer workstations for their planning times. In addition, the presence of growing numbers of volunteers in schools intensifies the demand for additional work and instructional spaces.


Communicating the Importance of Education
Will the new school make a statement about the symbolic importance of education? As a public building, a school should make a statement about education to the community. The overall facade or appearance of the facility should reinforce the school's function as a safe haven for young people, symbolizing the community's heritage and its aspirations for the future. Planners should invite school partners to donate outdoor sculptures, exterior and interior murals, and displays of historic and cultural artifacts for commons areas. Highly visible art work can celebrate the cultural roots and diversity within the community. Entryways should invite people in, and clear signage should make the building and grounds easily navigable. The entire building should convey the message that this is an important place, that the place belongs to its users, and that its users belong to the place.


Connecting Pride in Place to Commitment to Education
When students take pride in their school buildings, scene of so many signal memories...first romance, first home run, last years of youth-they transfer their early experiences into emotional bonds with schooling. These deep connections between self and school are the groundwork for economic productivity, the benefits of good citizenship and personal wellness, and joyous lifelong learning.


1 G.T. Moore and J.A. Lackney, "Design Patterns for American Schools: Responding to the Reform Movement" in A. Meek (ed.), Designing Places for Learning (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1995) 11-22.

2 S.S. Crumpacker, "Using Cultural Information to Create Schools That Work" in Designing Places for Learning, 31-42.



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Part 4: Web Resources




















Buildings That Teach

Ann Taylor thinks that the way a school is designed and used has a profound impact on the way students learn. This article looks at the following topics as they related to the construction of schools: Indoor Learning Environments; Outdoor Learning Environments; School Is More Than A Place; and , Centers for Life-Long Learning.



Design Share Planning News

A resource for school planners and architects, Design Share Planning News has a range of articles supporting development of effective learning environments.



Ergonomic Guidelines for Designing Effective and Healthy Learning Environments for Interactive Technologies

This paper reviews ergonomics research on computer workstations and considers the following topics: (1) potential health hazards from electromagnetic radiation; (2) musculoskeletal disorders; (3) vision complaints; and (4) psychosocial stresses. Based on this review, guidelines on how to design an ergonomically correct workstation and learning environment are shared.


Resources from Concordia Architects

Stephen Bingler and his associates at Concordia Architects recognize the importance of educators in the school design process. They have written a number of papers that are shared in a PDF (Adobe Acrobat Reader) format. Titles of papers and slide shows include: Innovative Curricula Innovative Schools- Planning for Schools of the Future; Schools as Centers of a Community- A Citizens Guide for Planning and Design; Designing Public Schools- A Blueprint for Success.





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