HMFH Architects

ArchitectureBoston Magazine: No More Pencils

ArchitectureBoston Magazine explores new school designs including HMFH’s design for the trio of Concord Elementary Schools in Concord, NH.

Published in ArchitectureBoston magazine

It’s just after lunch on a Friday, but many of the classrooms at Abbot-Downing Elementary School in Concord, New Hampshire, are empty. Instead of sitting behind desks as their teachers lecture, a handful of fifth graders are holed up in a nook by the stairs, taking notes on a whiteboard.

Two boys stand at a counter working on iPads, while other students are clustered around tables in a common area, discussing novels. Overhead, the sun streams in through skylights, and interior windows connect a double-height library with the second floor. The building, with its casual atmosphere and warm color palette–orange floors, yellow-painted ductwork, bright-green walls, and blond wood furniture–does not feel like a typical public school. And according to the architects who designed the new building, that was the idea.

We have different strengths and ways of learning. How do you provide an environment where that can happen?

Laura WernickSenior Principal, HMFH

In recent years, educators have begun to realize that traditional schooling may not work for every child. Many studies have shown that children learn best by working on open-ended, real-world problems. Schools have also embraced theories of diverse learning styles: Some children learn best in groups; others have trouble paying attention unless they’re on their feet. Today, rather than forcing children to sit still and be quiet, teachers are assigning hands-on projects and allowing students to learn in whatever way suits their brains.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Salford in England found that school design, including such elements as a flexible classroom layout, wide hallways, and interesting decor, can account for up to 25 percent of academic progress. The paper, part of an ongoing study of more than 20 schools in the United Kingdom, is consistent with other recent research, including a 2009 University of Georgia finding that freedom of movement and views of the outdoors correlated with higher test scores in reading, math, and science. Other studies have looked at such factors as the impact of color on memory and engagement.

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