Back to school: Design lessons from the world's smartest education centers

Story highlights

  • The American Institute of Architects has released its list of the twelve most innovative schools
  • Leading education architect, John Dale, shares his fundamental lessons for good school design

(CNN)It's easy to dismiss the way a school or university looks. As long as it's functional, the more pressing educational concerns for parents are usually the curriculum, quality of teaching and exam results.

But the way educational buildings are designed -- from classroom layout in elementary schools to shared, collective spaces on college campuses -- can have a huge influence on learning.
    So much so that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a specific committee -- the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education -- established to research and share the world's best learning center architecture.
    They have recently selected 12 innovative, thoughtfully designed schools for this year's Education Facility Design Awards.
    CNN Style spoke to John Dale, the chair of AIA's Education Committee and principal at Harley Eliis Devereaux (HED) architects and engineers in the U.S., to learn the most important lessons in good school design.

    Color is critical

    Colorful curves are an eye-catching feature of Nanyang Primary School, Singapore.
    "Color is extremely important. There's a lot of research being done and theories about how certain colors over-stimulate. (In the U.S.), we are more conservative about color, especially in typical public schools, there's this sense that you can't have too many bright colors, that they'll distract the children and that they'll get hyperactive.
    "But then you go to Europe ... and you have some schools that are absolutely saturated with color. They are wonderful, engaging learning environments and they don't seem to have an issue. So, I think we have a lot to learn still."

    Bring the outdoors in

    Fuji Kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, has trees growing through the middle of its classrooms.
    "Indoor and outdoor learning experiences are very important and the most effective teachers understand that deeply. They are using that and are asking children to be aware of their environments.
    "Motor skills and collective activities need larger spaces but if you can have, within an outdoor area, smaller territories, more contained spaces, that really are viewed as private territory of a more individualized learning environment, then you've got the ability for an instructor to move back and forth between inside and outside and to be able to let children have choices at a given point of time in their learning experience during the day."

    One size does not fit all

    High School #9, Los Angeles, USA.
    "Today one size does not fit all ... children learn in different ways. And so more and more we are looking at how to differentiate learning environments, to create different settings within the schools we create, where learning can take place effectively.
    "An example of something that can happen in a relatively small space is that you can have vertical gardens. There's an educator in the Bronx who goes around to really tough schools and helps them figure out ways of growing gardens in really tight spaces and that's something that becomes a direct connector between the broader community and the school itself.

    Global principles, local construct

    This elementary and primary public school, located in the small town of Roldán, Spain, is wrapped in a green carpet of artificial turf and built on top of a two-meter high perimeter wall to protect it from the region's heavy rains.
    "With the internet and globalization there are certain universal design principles (for schools) that are largely understood around the world. But we also need to always design with a specific place in mind. So, from that point of view, I think good schools exhibit regional differences that make the most out of a particular environment and a particular context, to be successful.

    Special needs design is often the best design

    Hazelwood School in Glasgow, Scotland, is designed for students who are blind and deaf and features tactile walls that help them navigate their way through the building.
    "What we really should be doing is learning from the very best examples of schools that were designed exclusively for children with special needs because the best ones that I've seen are very successful. The more you get into that you find that you are creating a space that all children should have as part of their learning experience."

    Connect with the community

    The private Nueva School at Bay Meadows, California in the USA uses existing public resources -- like community playing fields and libraries -- and makes their own spaces available for public use in return.
    "Well-designed schools that are centers within their communities are organized in such a way that certain parts of the school (like a gymnasium or small auditorium) are more readily accessible for community use."

    Modernize learning environments

    The non-hierarchical, curved design of the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore  was designed to foster more collaborative learning.
    "Today, a lot of the environments that we create are still 19th century learning environments. They're individual classrooms lined up, they're really designed to be used in one way and, of course, that isn't really what's happening today.
    "Kids today are learning in all sorts of ways, they all have much more access to knowledge at a much earlier age, so now the focus is on how to discern, how to interpret that information, how to do independent research effectively, how to collaborate and to connect different disciplines to create a sort of more personalized picture of the world."

    Create specialized spaces

    Hakusui Nuersery School, Chiba, Japan.
    "One of things that's interesting is to think about how long a student is going to spend in a given space. If you think about a college environment, you will probably see that the most innovation and the most memorable spaces are the collective spaces. If you were to look at some of the most exemplary elementary schools, you'd really be focusing on the cluster of learning spaces and how effective that is."
    Take a look through the gallery above for more images of the world's cleverest schools.