HMFH Architects

The Evolution of Project Learning Spaces

Walk through a school these days, and you might be surprised to see a lot of students outside of their classrooms.

We're building spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate new technologies and learning philosophies: schools to serve the whole spectrum of effective learning modalities.

Pip LewisPrincipal, HMFH Architects

While traditional classrooms continue to serve the stand and deliver model of a teacher disseminating subject-specific information in front of seated students, project areas have emerged in response to a need for more adaptable and flexible space where students can apply that information. In the 60s and 70s shared break-out rooms and communal spaces for storytelling began appearing in our school designs. We now see a push for more places outside the classroom for a variety of student-centered activities like hands-on, interdisciplinary, and self-directed learning.

When we designed three new elementary schools in Concord, New Hampshire in 2009, visionary School District Superintendent Christine Rath understood how teaching practices were changing. She articulated her philosophy that learning happens everywhere and not just in a classroom or library, and that more spaces were needed for collaborative work.

To accomplish this, our design re-distributed the traditional resources of the library into  Learning Corridors that weave  through each school with multi-use shared spaces outside each classroom. The spaces were differentiated, with smaller, quiet places for small team projects, focused individual learning and research, or pull-out spaces for special ed purposes; and some bigger, where a whole class could go to do a science experiment, or to build projects that had to stay in place over time. Traditional book collections and learning resources as well as on-line resources are distributed among the shared areas.

We undertook a post-occupancy evaluation at the three schools to obtain useful feedback on what works well and not so much. With that information and with technology and teaching philosophies continuing to transform, our design of schools like the Carver Elementary School and the Woodland Elementary School build upon Concord’s Learning Corridors.

Like traditional classrooms, libraries have continued to evolve from being the singular center of research to a series of decentralized resource spaces. With seamless and integrated technology, students work independently on chrome books in project spaces while teachers can monitor what they’re doing. They produce podcasts and videos on their research, and work on group projects. Technology is interwoven into the process and the product, and project areas provide convenient space for students to come together. When we design Learning Corridors, the standard hallway becomes active and collaborative, where the process of learning is visible and engaging and students can show off the products of their learning.

As we develop designs for new middle and high schools in Weymouth, Saugus, and Arlington, we are incorporating feedback from educators and school administrators that the ideal school provides options and flexibility. The variety and continuity of spaces allows students to work in the ways that suit their needs, whether for hands-on paper mache projects and popsicle stick bridges for younger kids, robotics for older, or a quiet nook where a student of any age can focus. We’re designing spaces for project-based learning around common themes rather than a single subject area.

Younger teachers are engaged with the idea of 'I'm not just going to stand in front of you and lecture, we're learning and exploring together,' they want flexible spaces that they can still supervise.

Melissa GreeneAssociate, HMFH Architects

In the forthcoming Weymouth Middle School, academic spaces are organized by neighborhoods, in pods of multiple classrooms, with a diversity of spaces outside of the classroom. Each neighborhood will have a smattering of group spaces, as well as a collaborative space geared to presentation and coming together. The neighborhoods are tied together by the cafeteria, which we call the Town Square, and at the gateway into each neighborhood is an exploratory lab, arranged around specific scheduled classes like culinary arts, theatre arts, and a broadcast studio.

Weymouth provides one model of what project areas look like today: collaborative and interdisciplinary, with areas set aside for more structured labs and hands-on work. Each project reflects the unique educational program and needs of a community.  However, one thing seems to remain constant – the idea that kids learn more effectively when they see the purpose of their learning and project learning spaces support that.

The ideal school, to me, provides all sorts of spaces for all sorts of learning. Kids learn more effectively if they're engaged and seeing the purpose of what they are doing. A lot of it is just realistic problem solving.

Melissa GreeneAssociate, HMFH Architects