Architecture Can Teach

...and the lessons are rather fundamental

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 31
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Anne Taylor teaches at the University of New Mexico, George Vlastos is an architect, and Robert Aldrich, who teaches at the University of Washington School of Medicine, was the first director of the National Institute of Mental Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

– Robert Gilman

There are a number of environments in which children must spend a large share of their time. Some of these are antagonistic, hostile or incompatible to self-expression. In this regard, the American school leaves little room for a sense of ownership or involvement. Students have very little to say, and are rarely asked for their opinions, about their school’s physical characteristics . In its present state, the architecture and physical setting of most American schools is deplorable. It almost always follows the passive "egg crate" closed classroom format of 200 years ago, and all too often it is more like a prison than a place of discovery, wonder and creativity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Since 1972 two of us (Taylor and Vlastos) have been studying the effects of learning environments on the behavior and learning of children. We are convinced that school environments have a largely untapped potential as active contributors to the learning process. It is also our contention that every teacher, administrator and child is a potential designer. Great amounts of money are not needed. Careful thought, time, enthusiasm and efficiency of planning can make a school ready to create the kind of learning environment so crucial to student growth.


Every object, color, texture, and spatial configuration, as well as their selection and placement, has educational significance. The designer of such spaces must, therefore, ask him or herself: "What educational implication does this or that design decision have for the occupant (learner or teacher)?" In order to do that, the designer must work closely with the educator to articulate what those goals for children are, and the educator must articulate more than square footage per child as the conceptual base for education.

Learning environment design should be so executed that, rather than separating concepts, it reflects the way the world is constructed and the way children perceive it. Before Western Man divided the Universe into discrete subject matter areas, the order in the Universe was (and still is) both interdisciplinary and holistic. The branching of trees, the spiraling of shells, meandering of streams, and the radial designs of flowers, for example, have significance for mathematics, botany, biology, and art. It may well be the mission of future designers of learning environments to put the environment back together so children can learn concepts as part of an integrated whole instead of fragmented ideas.

As part of the reordering, a number of learning opportunities can be woven into the structure of a school so that the built environment becomes an active, three-dimensional textbook or teaching tool, rather than a passive space housing a disarray of "things."

The task of achieving such well-ordered learning rests on these four important premises:

1) People are considered an integral part of, not apart from, the environment. The environment affects people and they, in turn, affect the environment.

2) The architectural environment, as a work of art in and of itself, can affect behavior. It can stimulate or subdue, aid creativity or slow mental perception, cause fear or joy. In fact, it can affect a whole range of psychological phenomena.

3) The environment can be designed, engineered, and provisioned to serve as an additional learning tool. Crucial to this premise is a conceptual base from which design determinants and goals are derived. This base consists of the curriculum and the learning objectives within developmental levels of the learner.

4. The learning environment can be evaluated as a learning tool if it has the developmental needs of children and students as a basis for design.


Although the authors would like to see schools not configured by lockstep, classroom configuration, we know that classrooms are probably here to stay. It is possible, however, to rethink their design and the components which make up the classroom of the future. Many teachers have emptied their classrooms at the beginning of the year and have spent a month with students redesigning the rooms as an educational experience in space planning for the children.

This section identifies generic settings within the classroom that are essential to all learning spaces and which serve the needs of children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 – not only in self-contained classrooms, but also in such specialized classrooms as language labs, science rooms, resource areas, Chapter 1 rooms for disadvantaged students, and Special Education classrooms.

Entry Zone * Every classroom should welcome students and have some form of an entry (to define it). Hanging plants, hanging fabric, and/or some kind of partitions or student art should be warm and inviting and relate to the outside of the room as a transition. The entry and exit dynamics should contain clues which lead people into and from a place with elements of anticipation or resolve.

Work Zone * Work zones can be self-contained; can be private or for small groups; should be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable for work; and should include surfaces which meet the task: writing, drawing, printing, constructing things, wood-working, etc. A flexible system of learning centers can be set up near the storage and display zones. These centers do not necessarily have to be organized around the disciplines of mathematics, science, art, or reading. They can be organized in interdisciplinary fashion and around contextual themes and concepts. For instance, a cooking environment can be used to teach math, science, social studies, reading, cultural uses of food, and nutrition, to promote health socialization, and/or to double as an art area.

Storage System Zones * Storage systems in a classroom can be learning tools, also. Putting things away and making the room orderly for the next day helps children to become responsible for their environment. There should be a logic to the storage. It is important in a highly materialistic culture to help children to understand, care for, and respect property. Children and instructors alike interact with materials in the learning environment. Circulation in a classroom will be dependent on careful planning of the storage of coats, boots, hats, books, and supplies.

Display Zones And Mini-Museums * Quite often, teachers put up and display so much "stuff" that the classroom becomes chaotic. This does not help the child to become visually literate and it results in the "super market" effect wherein s/he eventually blocks out the stimuli because there is too much to look at. When children learn how to read, they develop visual and spatial perceptual skills, such as figure/ground discrimination, embedded figure, part/whole relationships, positive/negative form and space, rotational shape, etc. Therefore, selected spaces which are not necessarily bulletin boards should be assigned for art work. They could also serve as message boards, as museums for aesthetically pleasing and culturally contextual items, and/or for the display of photographs or general artwork. The walls of dividers used for display in a classroom should have a museum-like quality and contribute to learning, especially for such subject matter areas as reading, science, mathematics. There also should be negative space (plain walls) around the display area so that the intended message is perceived and digested. Teachers need help from architects and graphic designers to learn the art of display.

Living Things Zone * This zone contains plants, trees, and perhaps a window greenhouse, and animals, such as small animal cages or fishtanks. In no case should classrooms be designed without windows or natural light! Hanging plants can be rigged on pulley systems for delineating spaces and areas within classroom, and children can take care of them.

Research Area And Library Zone * This area might contain reference books, well-chosen children’s literature, telecommunication for worldwide communication, and interactive video for encyclopedic verbal-visual information retrieval. It should be an area where children can work independently and in small groups.

Soft Zone * This zone should be home-like with living-room ambience for reading, lounging, quiet play (games), or informal work. It could be considered a quiet personal space and could be next to the research and library zone. It could be an elevated loft or a soft amphitheater used for group meetings, discussions, or creative dramatics. The opportunity to use the volume of space above the floor can be facilitated by level change.

Graphic Arts * A graphic which covers a part of a wall or a corner, or wraps itself from entry to ceiling around a wall, can teach. Paint is an architectural membrane which can be changed often; it can help children to learn the alphabet, their numbers, color combinations, and left-to-right sequencing. Moreover, a graphic can be culturally significant, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Signage is important in that messages and items are labeled; perhaps bilingual labels can be used for language learning. Unfortunately, works of art are rarely seen in schools, but there is a need to promote visual learning, as well as verbal learning. Since children watch thousands of hours of television, they need to become visually selective. Graphics and painting can help them to promote visual thinking, give visual messages, and help the viewer make aesthetic judgments.

Teacher Zone * Teachers do not need, in all cases, a desk. Rather, they have said that they need a well-organized place for things. Perhaps a drop-down table in a lockable storage area with shelves is adequate. If the teacher circulates and works with small groups of students in an applied learning format, she or he becomes a facilitator – not a lecturer glued to a desk or one "teaching spot" in the room.

Technology Zone – Toward The Future * As we move towards a more highly developed technology, schools need to tap available machines and to expose children at an early age to their use. The exposure and use should be consistent and not sporadic. Many schools have complicated video-taping and other expensive equipment stashed away in closets because no one knows how to use it. Teachers should be given proper training to use technology – or perhaps children can be taught directly by technicians how to use such valuable teaching and learning devices. The technology zone should provide a well-designed place for computers, language and listening labs, typewriters, calculators, and videotape and other evolving systems. It is important that the zone have a futuristic feeling about it to challenge a child’s imagination.

Indoor-Outdoor Relationships * Where possible, there should be a transition area between classroom and the playground area. A patio is an extension of the classroom (especially in milder climates where solar energy and heat is possible). In many cases, the outdoor area can act as an extension of the classroom for art projects, construction, gardening, and botany. The possible uses of the outdoors for environmental learning has been largely ignored by most school designers and educators.


Learning environments, such as just described, demand a trust relationship between teachers and students. This kind of environment also helps students to become more independent – responsible, in many cases, for their own learning. A well-provisioned classroom supports the curriculum and the teachers by acting as a regenerative research and resource center. Students get excited about learning; they are not bored or turned off. Hostility toward previously boring schools is changed into curious creativity. In this more informal – but more efficient – setting, the trust relationship and respect for children becomes the basis for transmittal of democratic value systems. Seating students in rigid rows, insisting on constant surveillance, staffing schools with narcotic agents and guard dogs, or surrounding the school with chain-link fences are only preparing students for a police state – not for a democracy. If Americans value their freedom, and if schools are here to support the needs of society – not solely to determine them – then we need to rethink the architectural, pedagogical aura of our schools. We, as educators, administrators, and parents, must help the schools of America get ready for the 21st Century – not as prisons, but as healthy, humanized, exciting places to live, learn, and prepare for the future!


American Association of School Administrators School-Building Commission, Planning America’s School Buildings, Washington: American Association of School Administrators, 1960

Anderson, R., "The school as an organic teaching aid", in R.M. McClure (ed.), National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, Part 1, The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Ahrentzen, Sherry. "Student Responses to Openness, Softness, and Seclusion in Elementary School Classrooms", Journal of Man-Environment Relations, Winter, 1982.

Coates, G.J. (ed.), Alternative Learning Environments. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson, & Ross, Inc., 1974.

David, T.G., Students’ and Teachers’ Reactions to Classroom Environments. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1979.

Haney, C. & Simbardo, P.G., "It’s tough to tell a high school from a prison", Psychology Today, 1975, pp 26-30, 106.

Ott, John, Health and Light., New York: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Preiser, Wolfgang F.E., Post-Occupancy Evaluation, Stroudsburg: Hutchinson & Ross, 1980.

Taylor, Anne, Licht, L. and Steele, J., Graphics for Learning, School Zone, Inc. (unpublished)

Taylor, Anne, Preiser, Wolfgang F.E., "The Habitability Framework: Linking Human Behavior and Physical Environment in Special Education", Exceptional Education Quarterly, August 1983.

Taylor, Anne, and Vlastos, George, School Zone, Learning Environments For Children, Albuquerque: (2nd edition) Horizon Communications, 1984.

Weinstein, Carol S. (ed.), "Special issue on Learning Environments: An Introduction", Journal of Man-Environment Relations. Winter, 1982. n