10 Educational Trends Impacting School Planning and Design
When building new schools or renovating existing ones, it is important to take into account the trends that influence how we perceive and deliver public education. It’s impossible to predict the future, but we have a responsibility to recognize changing attitudes and practices in an effort to better understand how they might impact the physical educational environment.
This article takes a close look at 10 educational trends one should consider when planning, designing, and remodeling schools. These trends were determined by reviewing research on the relationship of school facilities to student outcomes, by scrutinizing current trends, issues, problems, and initiatives in education, and by examining demographic patterns indicated in the 2000 U. S. Census, the most recent data available when the article was written. The article summarizes the findings and account of Kenneth R. Stevenson, Ed.D., a professor of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies College of Education at University of South Carolina.
Trend No. 1: Lines of Prescribed Attendance Becoming Less Defined
Given that public education has been the only option for most of our nation’s children, school enrollment planning has been relatively straightforward during the past 50 years. Based on the principle that schools have set geographic boundaries, planners used demographics to determine the number of students living within each boundary. However, that concept has significantly changed in the wake of education reform, new education legislation, and greater school accountability.
Parents and policy makers unhappy with public education are demanding more choices. They have sought and obtained vouchers, tax credits, or other avenues that provide better educational solutions than their local public school. And increasingly, public school systems are embracing the idea that parents should have more say in where their child attends school. At least 38 states offer parents and communities the option of chartering schools. In the 2001–2002 school year, for example, there were nearly 2,400 charter schools operating across the nation (Nathan 2001).
While the shift from fixed attendance zones to broader choices is a positive development, it is creating a problem: There is greater uncertainty about attendance levels and facility requirements. Different types of schools have different—and unequal—needs. Increasingly, educators and policy makers are recognizing that “identical” schools in terms of facilities do not equate to equal opportunity for students. And students function best in different environments according to their talents, abilities, and needs. Today, school systems are embracing the concept that good facilities planning and implementation produces equity—which means that schools are equipped with the facilities required to maintain their unique programs with their target audience.
Trend No. 2: Schools Becoming Smaller and More Neighborhood-Focused
Educational experts nationwide promote the benefit of smaller schools. Florida policy makers, for example, have mandated a reduction in the maximum sizes for
schools. It is possible that within the next 25 years, we will have elementary schools housing an average of 200 students, middle schools supporting no more than 400 to 500 students, and high schools averaging 500 to 750 students. Proponents for smaller schools are grounded by a growing body of research that indicates that such schools are overwhelmingly better in a number of areas, including:
- improving the academic achievement of students who have not been successful in traditional settings
- increasing graduation rates
- obtaining greater student involvement in school co-curricular activities
- helping to overcome challenging student behavioral situations
Whether the inclination toward smaller schools will persist will depend on a number of factors. For one, scientific evidence varies over whether smaller or bigger schools translate into better students. Therefore, more research is needed to assist policy makers in their decisions. Also, many people argue that the expense of moving to smaller schools is too high—despite the benefits. On the other hand, some argue small schools are no more expensive to run than large ones if cost is measured against graduation rates. At any rate, schools districts must address the optimum school size when planning for a long-term facilities program.
Trend No. 3: Shrinking Class Sizes
Student-teacher ratios are shrinking, resulting in fewer students per class. And the current inclination to minimize class size will continue for the foreseeable future (Biddle 2002). Research such as Tennessee’s STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) Project has helped to suppress teacher-pupil ratios (Achilles 1996). The state funding formula for South Carolina has been modified to a teacher-pupil ratio of 18:1 for grades one through three. And there is a strong call for reducing this ratio even further.
Within a decade, we may encounter a national average teacher-pupil ratio
approaching 12:1 in the elementary grades. This reduction in class size will
require more teachers, while decreasing the student capacity of buildings. Some schools will find they have too few classrooms to accommodate their student—even if the total number of students they serve remains unchanged. This scenario will have to be addressed as the proportion of students to teachers drops.
Trend No. 4: Dominance of Technology in the Delivery of Instruction
Schools will be more neighborhood-oriented and, consequently, more numerous. And with the shrinking teacher-pupil ratios adding to the overall costs of education, school districts will have to look for ways to control education expenses. Distance education will be a likely solution (Clark 2001). More instruction will be delivered over closed-circuit television, the Internet, or the school’s own intranet, which will require less personnel. For instance, instead of four teachers delivering instruction to 100 fourth-grade students, the school of the future may have one master teacher and a team of assistants. The assistant, working under direction of the master teacher, might interact directly with students or help them use educational software.
This kind of approach has been pondered for many years, and today’s technological advancements make the likelihood of such highly probable. Therefore, the concept of a school building may have to undergo considerable rethinking to ensure the accommodation of educational instruction on this level.
Trend No. 5: Changes in School Spaces
In the future, perceptions about school spaces may change, causing future building designs to follow suit. (Butin 2000). According to one viewpoint, teaching will become more fundamental, driven by the emphasis on school accountability as measured by standardized test scores. Consequently, the curriculums and practices will change. Students would be required to complete additional courses in traditional “academic” subjects instead of taking non-academic electives, such as art. The increased focus on academic subjects, in turn, would reduce the demand for music, art and even physical education courses.
In a very different second scenario, standard academic classrooms would be replaced by specialized labs and learning centers (Lackney 1999). However, visionaries contend that segmenting learning into academics, arts, vocational, and other areas is a false dichotomy (Chan 1996). Their perception is that learning is a
holistic experience—art incorporated into language arts or math taught with specific job skills or vocations in mind. Under this concept, classrooms must be multifunctional to accommodate a combination of traditional instruction with interactive lab-type exercises that may involve anything from pottery making to drama.
A third scenario maintains an increase in more shared school spaces. Schools of the future will be created or redesigned to allow instructional and support spaces to be used by outside social and community organizations—or even businesses. For example, a high-school keyboarding space may house a computer technology course in the evening that a local business offers its employees. Or adults in the community may drop by the school health room for a blood pressure check with the school nurse. Such sharing of space is expected to be beneficial to the school and the community. Students would gain access to a wide range of community and business expertise that could enhance and enliven the curriculum to life; the shared space would also add value to community members. The key to successful planning for either of the three scenarios is to provide schools with the most flexible
learning spaces possible.
Trend No. 6: Shift in the Organization of Students and Teachers
Historically, teacher-student ratio requirements have determined the placement of students in classrooms. But more and more, students are being grouped by learning and teaching styles. As a result, students in schools of the future may be assigned to a classroom because its design best supports the way they learn. And such schools may contain vastly different types of classrooms on the same hallway.
In addition, an entire school could be custom designed for students with particular learning styles. For instance, visual learners might attend a facility especially designed to support their approach to learning. Or kinesthetic learners could attend a school that affords access to action-based instruction.
Trend No. 7: Students Will Spend More Time in School
Schools are under constant demands from policy makers and society. In an effort to comply with educational requirements, school days will lengthen, and the school year will extend to 240 days from its current average of 180 days (Lackney 1999). The expanded use of school facilities will make it necessary for materials and equipment to be more durable and easily replaced. Another consideration for planners: Schools will operate nearly full time, so there will be less time for making repairs. And utility costs will increase, requiring greater emphasis to be placed on energy efficiency and life-cycle costing.
Trend No. 8: Advancements in Instructional Materials
School systems of the future will operate virtually without paper. Most reference material, from journals to magazines, will be downloaded from the Internet or available on CDs and DVDs (Simon 2001). Consequently, the availability of adequate electrical service, Internet access, and internal networking will be critical.
Equally as important, the use of computer resources will affect the visual, thermal, acoustical, and physical environment of the classroom. Maintaining an environment crucial to learning will depend on a variety of technical factors, ranging from controlling the glare from computer screens to providing adequate sound treatment to controlling machine noise.
Trend No. 9: Modification to Grade Configurations
In the future, educational facilities will be designed to address the latest findings about when and where students learn best. For example, research indicates that each transition or school change a student makes has a negative impact on learning (Renchler 2000). To minimize changes and counteract this, schools districts are altering grade configurations. Some districts are creating K-8 schools or even considering housing all grades in a K–12 school. Still other school systems are inclined to split up grades, going from the standard K–5 or K–6 in favor of primary and intermediate schools. Regardless of the direction, the reconfiguration of grades will necessitate that planners reshape the size, shape, and location of school buildings in the future.
Trend No. 10: Potential Disappearance of Schools Before the End of the 21st Century
The previous trends relate to how school facilities may differ in the coming years. Yet, another remotely possible scenario is that schools, as we know them, will disappear (Northwest Educational Technology Consortium 2002). Given the rapid development of technology and parents’ diminishing confidence in public education, the disappearance of brick-and-mortar school buildings is not farfetched.
In fact, it is already happening. All across the United States, parents that home school their children rely on technology to access instructional materials. Similarly, students in remote areas of Canada and Australia log onto their computers to attend classes. Perhaps the question is not whether traditional schools will become obsolete, but to what extent virtual schools will expand. Planners should also contemplate how much should be invested in facilities, what kind of life expectancy they should have, and should future emphasis be on schools as traditional learning environments or as production and broadcast centers. The issue also raises an important question about the basic purpose of schooling: If technology becomes the main instructional delivery channel of the future, who or what will assume responsibility for the socialization process for which schools have traditionally been held accountable?
Using Trends to Facilitate the Planning of Good Schools
Trends are simply lines of direction or movement. They vary in different parts
of the country, as well as within communities in the same area. The key to creating educational facilities that adequately address current and future needs in any community is to constantly scan the environment, communicate regularly with educators, the community, businesses and policy makers, and keep abreast of current educational, design, and environmental issues.
Effective planning for the 21st century requires thinking ahead and asking important trend-related questions: What developments in education may influence school design tomorrow? What demographic changes within the community could alter how education must be delivered or what taxpayers are willing to support? Asking such questions now can help ensure successful educational programs for the school systems of the future.
This article was reproduced for educational purposes from a September 2002 National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities article entitled “Ten Educational Trends Shaping School Planning and Design” by Kenneth R. Stevenson, Ed.D.
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About original author, Kenneth R. Stevenson
Kenneth R. Stevenson is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policies, College of Education, University of South Carolina at Columbia. He
is also an educational planner and consultant to school districts in the areas of school facilities, technology evaluation, and educational management.