HMFH Architects

Learning
Commons

Schools have traditionally been designed to support the transmission of knowledge in one direction, from teacher to students. But people learn in different ways. And in today’s culture of connectivity, the old-school model of facilities doesn’t meet the needs of modern learners.

Think of a one room schoolhouse, with a teacher at the blackboard and a group of students sitting at individual desks. School design hasn’t shifted far from this model in the past century. Today’s students and educators are seeking student-centered, hands-on learning that will allow them to become tomorrow’s thinkers, makers, and innovators. How can architecture facilitate this kind of learning? How can we, as designers, optimize every inch of a building to help students develop the creativity and inquisitiveness needed to solve tomorrow’s challenges?

Evolving from traditional school libraries, Learning Commons function as multipurpose centers of inquiry, an engaging collection of spaces that cater to the broad needs of today’s students. Highly flexible and adaptable, a Learning Commons supports student exploration and group endeavors as well as traditional face-to-face sharing of ideas.

Designing a Learning Commons requires great care, both as its own microcosm and as an integral part of day-to-day school activities. Contrary to the quiet atmosphere of a library, a Learning Commons is designed to foster a buzz of activity and create a culture of exploration. From acoustics (highly absorptive surfaces) to storage (durable and varied) to furniture (flexible and sturdy), to natural light (plentiful and controlled), the environment is designed to easily handle loud, messy building projects, lively student performances, and quiet introspective explorations.

A Learning Commons can be a stand alone space or it can be tightly integrated with surrounding teaching spaces. In a trio of new elementary schools in Concord, New Hampshire, windows between classrooms and the Learning Commons allow teachers to oversee activities, providing appropriate oversight while nurturing students’ ability to work independently autonomously. The resulting transparency unites the entire school community around a culture of shared learning. Students, teachers and administrators love their new school and, more importantly, it supports them in each learning endeavor.

Students and educators have also embraced the design of learning commons at the recently completed Woodland Elementary School as well as the new Winthrop Middle/High school.

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As neurological research has taught us more about how the brain learns and retains information, teaching pedagogy has changed, and the design of school buildings is catching up.

Laura Wernick, FAIASenior Principal, HMFH Architects
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We are about learning and learning takes place everywhere, not just in classrooms. Everywhere you look, in every nook and cranny, there’s a place for learning, a place for kids to collaborate.

Susan Noyes, Educational AdministratorConcord Schools
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