Design Invigorates Schools - and Students

Several schools are involving students with architecture, on a big and small scale

To Anne Taylor, education reform begins with the building in which students are taught.

For too long, she says, American schools have been designed in ``egg-crate'' fashion, with hallways linking a succession of bland, homogeneous classrooms. ``We were educating for the industrial model,'' she says, preparing children for a life of routine tasks.

Dr. Taylor says the power of an opposite approach to learning dawned on her two decades ago while watching her own children picking up shells on a beach. By selecting which shells to keep, the children were teaching themselves to make aesthetic judgments, she saw. Since then, she has worked to establish a new order of stimulating, activity-centered schools.

Her work as a design consultant parallels the growing emphasis many educators place on experiential, hands-on learning. Business leaders say they need workers who are prepared not only to read, write, and calculate, but also to communicate effectively, work in teams, acquire new skills, and solve problems by integrating different fields of learning.

Many teachers, meanwhile, are trying to go beyond traditional methods to nurture ``multiple intelligences'' (an idea popularized by Harvard University's Howard Gardner) - including visual/spatial, verbal, mathematical, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills.

This quest for new types of learning, a facet of the broader, decade-old education-reform movement, may also result in new approaches to school design.

Yet so far, Taylor laments, classrooms remain remarkably unchanged since 1974, when she and architect George Vlastos wrote a book called ``School Zone: Learning Environments for Children,'' espousing a design revolution. Among their ideas: Have children learn science by taking care of plants and animals; turn buildings into ``three-dimensional textbooks'' by labeling heating ducts and electrical systems; and design schools with architectural features children are learning about, such as a Roman arch or a cantilever.

The lack of wholesale change in school design may not be surprising, in light of the big capital expenditures voters must approve (by one estimate the United States needs to spend $400 billion on schools) and the continuing debate over what the core tenets of education reforms should be.

But improved learning places must be part of the education mix, Taylor asserts. She tells of a school in Denver that experienced a high rate of vandalism and litter by students. The problem diminished noticeably after an art teacher and his students worked to spruce up the sterile atmosphere.

Taylor has had some success in planting her ideas in school systems in the western United States, especially here near Seattle (where she is a professor of architecture at the University of Washington) and in her home state of New Mexico. She heads the School Zone Institute, which is based in Santa Fe, N.M.; its Seattle branch is known as Architecture and Children.

The Edmonds School District, just north of Seattle, is using a $120-million bond issue to start preparing its schools for the 21st century, and hired Taylor to guide its efforts. Her style is to lead seminars, sometimes just with kids, to help people think creatively about design and to draw diagrams representing their ideas.

In Edmonds, a core group of about 50 parents, children, teachers, and community members is working with architects to develop guiding principles.

``The thing that's been absolutely phenomenal to all of us is that the process we're using really models'' the shift toward more interdisciplinary, team-oriented learning, says Michael Warden, executive director of planning for the Edmonds schools.

The Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, Calif., began similar brainstorming sessions with Taylor back in 1991. Children pushed the idea of operating their own farm and ecological study center. The school is scheduled to open in 1996.

Mr. Warden, while acknowledging that this kind of big thinking can stretch limited funds, says communities must also beware of getting stuck with outmoded schools. ``Education is probably changing as dramatically now as it ever has,'' he says.

The core group of planners in Edmonds, for example, has subgroups on issues of technology, planning-for-flexibility, and racial-ethnic diversity. The district is pushing to have plans set by the end of this year, so the project can be complete by 1998.

In addition to working on school-design projects, Taylor and Mr. Vlastos have developed a curriculum of simple design experiences that use architecture as a vehicle for integrating math, science, art, and cultural studies.

``This stays with them,'' says Sharon Mason, who teaches at one of several Seattle public schools that specialize in nontraditional teaching methods. ``You talk about geometric shapes and then kids make triangles and domes.''

This past year, Ms. Mason taught elective classes called ``architecture as personal history,'' for which students researched, designed, and built scale models of houses in which their ancestors might have lived.

One student, 11-year-old Marcy Stone, liked the class well enough to sign up for two successive semesters. After building a palace on the Nile River, she departed from the ``ancestors'' theme to explore her interest in theater by building a model playhouse, complete with a marquee advertising ``Jack and the Beanstalk.''

Though the two sides of Taylor's crusade - fresher school designs and a more integrated curriculum - may seem distinct, they go hand in hand, Taylor says. The design of the school flows directly from decisions about what and how to teach. Neither issue can be ignored, she says. ``If we could create a better learning environment, we'd have better schools and better, more involved students.''

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