Andrew Miller

Matching Physical Structures to Learning and School Culture

Physical structures should match school cultures and learning modalities, not the other way around. Despite what some might say, physical structures communicate a lot about the learning environment and what to expect. Just like we set up seats for the first day of school to set a tone, the building communicates a tone as well. Throughout my visits, I’ve come across many innovative buildings that really set a tone for safe school culture and innovative learning. It's not about technology and bells and whistles; it's about the layout and ways that the walls talk.

My first two examples come from Dubiski Career High School in Texas. Where are the traditional lecture seats set up? Outside the classroom. These formal stations are set up throughout the school to allow for presentations, formal lectures, and other similar learning experiences to occur, but not in the official classroom. In fact, it is hard to tell where the learning environment begins and where it ends, hence creating the message that this is a continuous learning environment. This structure also communicates that learning occurs in many different places and in many different ways. Traditional lectures are not the focus but are used when appropriate, and this message comes across quite clear.

Another example: The school embraces different kinds of content presentations, as in the example of its mock trial room. The school creates a variety of spaces to indicate that learning and demonstration occur in different ways, keeping students on their toes and allowing for innovation and creativity. Overall, the physical structures of Dubiski Career High School communicate that learning is innovative, seamless, and appropriate to the objectives.

Dubiski Career High School
Dubiski Career High School hallway (Photo credit: Andrew K. Miller)


Dubiski Career High School
Dubiski Career High School mock trial room (Photo credit: Andrew K. Miller)


Manor New Technology High School, also in Texas, has physical structures that communicate both in terms of learning but also in terms of school culture. I'm going to focus on school culture examples. Classrooms within the building have large windows that open into the hallway. It communicates transparency of the learning, both for the faculty and for the students. Classrooms are not isolated. On the contrary, classrooms are open and welcoming. In addition, students and teachers share the space.

Student work is prevalent throughout the school, covering parts of windows and walls. Student ownership is the clear message that is being communicated. Yes, faculty share the space, but share is the key word and only a fraction of what students own. In addition, students claim ownership of the school walls in innovative and creative ways, as evident by the photo of the school wall. In this case, student work led to designing a mural that would remain on a school wall. What an excellent example of a high-stakes audience, which we know raises the level of student work. Here students are given the opportunity in the classroom environment to own the school, communicating that this place is first and foremost about the student.

Manor New Technology High School
Manor New Technology High School hallway (Photo credit: Manor New Technology High School)


Manor New Technology High School
Manor New Technology High School mural (Photo credit: Manor New Technology High School)


It would be great if we had the money to create innovative new structures to mirror rigorous learning and safe school culture. I know that many use this as an excuse not to try. Instead, I would encourage you to find ways, no matter how small, to create structures at your school that communicate a message that school put students first, that school is a safe place, and that innovative learning occurs. Look at everything from the schedule, to the way you set up your furniture in the classroom, to the space on the walls you give to students. You can start now to push for better physical structures at your school.

Andrew K. Miller is an educator and consultant. He is a National Faculty member for ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.

Comments (6)


July 15, 2011

is it green? and LEED certified?

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October 24, 2013

1. please can u explain the term physical and environmental structures of a school..

2. explaining the various stages of the mental development of a child and it implications on a P1, P2, P6…

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