Build It and They Will Learn: How the Design of a School Impacts Learning

East Harlem School

The Facade of the East Harlem School. Photo: Eric Freeland.

A school is more than just a building. It’s an ecosystem, as delicate and as in need of balance as the ecosystems of the natural world. They way that a school is designed dictates the success of its mission to educate children and prepare them to become active and engaged citizens. To this end, teachers, administrators, architects, parents, concerned community members, and students themselves are innovating classroom design to create healthier environments conducive to effective learning.

The American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY) set out to find examples of schools that are built on the premise that physical design influences the learning process, or said another way, form informs function. The blurring of boundaries is happening in media, between work and home, and between public and private spaces. Societal and cultural trends heavily influence the systems in which children learn so it’s only natural that over time they would begin to influence the spaces where learning happens.

The AIA explores all of these concepts in its current exhibit, The Edgeless School: Design for Learning at the Center for Architecture located at 536 LaGuardia Place. The exhibit opened on October 1, 2012 and has been extended through May 25, 2013. It was organized in partnership with the AIANY Committee on Architecture for Education and the Center for Architecture Foundation.

The perfect curator
To bring this highly complex idea to life for a wide range of audiences—architects, educators, policy makers, parents, designers, and the general public—AIANY needed an empathic, seasoned curator. They found this rare combination in Thomas Mellins, an independent curator whose numerous credits include The New York Public Library’s Celebrating 100 Years exhibition and The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York. Because they are so intricate, Thomas’s exhibits typically take 18 months to 2 years from concept to launch. This exhibit is no exception and required Thomas to also play the role of chief collaborator to bring together and lead a team of architects, designers, and education experts to create The Edgeless School.

The exhibit
The Edgeless School
has a number of interlocking pieces that explore the varied aspects of the physical architecture and design of school buildings and how those designs influence the learning process.

Model schools
Thomas and the advisory board sifted through hundreds of potential schools to find the best examples of school designs that fundamentally changed the education experience for students, teachers, administrators, families, and communities. It was a Herculean effort and the team arrived at 19 schools that represent a mix of geographies, public, private, and magnet schools. These 19 model schools are showcased in storyboards with photographs and architectural plans as well as scale models. All the schools have been constructed in the past 7 years. These examples include The East Harlem School, which focuses its efforts on raising up the poorest students in its neighborhood with a “whole child” education philosophy, New Settlement Community Campus, which thoroughly integrates the community with the school in every facet including curriculum development, and L.B. Landry High School, which has a public community health clinic on its first floor for the express purpose of encouraging healthy living among its students.

Expert voices
In addition to the schools, the exhibit hosts a number of expert education voices throughout history. Educators like John Dewey and Maria Montessori broke from the highly structured German-based education models to form their own theories of how we can most effectively educate children. Today many education experts have taken the theories of people like Dewey and Montessori and adapted them for modern-day society with particular attention paid to the advancements in technology. These current voices are quite diverse and include people like Dale Dougherty, one of the co-founders of O’Reilly Media, founding editor and publisher of MAKE magazine, and co-creator of Maker Faire, and John Seely Brown, a researcher who specializes in organizational studies and is deeply entrenched in computer-supported activities and organizational learning.

Interior design and landscaping
The other main portion of the exhibit involves interior design including new innovations in classroom seating, the design of common spaces such as libraries and hallways where a great deal of informal learning takes place, and the development of outdoor spaces that serve as classrooms and living labs for subjects related to science.

Closing thoughts
Perhaps one of the most interesting and pressing debates around school design involves how to safely build bridges between schools and their communities. The concept for The Edgeless School exhibit happened long before Newtown and no one could have predicted this horrendous act and the intense debate it would spark in our country. Design is no small part of this conversation, and undoubtedly will be part of the solution as we strive to understand how we balance the idea of school as sanctuary with the need and desire for transparency and real-world experience.

Topics on education like this create the themes for the plethora of tangential events that are scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit. These programs are open to the public and encourage all of us interested in education to attend and lend our ideas. For a complete list of events as well as details about the exhibit, please visit

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