A Spatial Paradigm for Thriving Learners

By: Nathan Strenge

In our last Getting Smart article, we introduced six elements of thriving learners (pictured above). Using six school images, we examined how each thriving element is manifested in the physical environment, as well as its impact. Alone, each element adds tremendous value to learners’ experiences.  Combined, they provide the necessary preconditions for learners to thrive. However, when applied within the context of an overarching spatial paradigm that is designed to help foster each element, the benefit is exponential.

In this article, we will attempt to define a spatial paradigm that helps schools effectively create the conditions to foster the six thriving elements – we will call this the Thriving Paradigm. When defining something for the first time, it’s helpful to contrast it with something known. Thus, we will juxtapose the Thriving Paradigm with the spatial model that most readers of this publication experienced growing up, which we will call the Conventional Paradigm.

A Quick Note on Paradigms

Because we have chosen to use the term paradigm, we’d like to pause to reflect on the definition of this word and provide context for using it. Collins English Dictionary defines paradigm as: “a model for something that explains it or shows how it can be produced.”

There is nothing inherently good or bad about a paradigm. A paradigm typically arises to meet the needs of a specific set of circumstances. The conventional school spatial paradigm arose in the 20th-century to respond to a demand for bigger schools that could meet the needs of a growing student population. Two major events preceded this demand.  First, by 1918 all states had passed legislation requiring that all American children were required to attend at least Elementary School (source), making one room schoolhouses less practical. Secondly, post-WWII America witnessed booming populations and an increasing push for a baseline of literacy. As such, the conventional paradigm was a response that largely met the context of the time.

We, at Fielding International, want to be abundantly clear. We are not suggesting that it is impossible to have a great school that uses the conventional spatial paradigm. We know high-quality learning can happen inside conventional environments, and incredible educators around the world overcome spatial barriers every day. However, if we have different priorities for our schools in the 21st-century, and the environment can be designed to bring about those priorities, it is only natural that a different paradigm should arise.

With that, let’s explore the transformation from the Conventional Paradigm to the Thriving Paradigm.

From… The school building operates as a series of segregated, fixed learning spaces

To… The school building operates as a fluid environment of connected, agile learning spaces

In the Thriving Paradigm, learners are not stuck inside the walls of a set classroom environment. They experience diverse and adaptive spaces that support different kinds of learning goals, experiences, and accomplishments. Permeable, flexible spaces allow students to extend the reach of their learning beyond what a single, fixed classroom can offer. The kind of fluid, agile use of space that characterizes the Thriving Paradigm is not the same as what the Open School Movement of the 1970s came to mean. In that movement, openness, or lack of structure, often ended up being a kind of end in itself, as if taking away structure would cause learning to bloom. In the Thriving Paradigm, spaces are intentionally designed to match students’ varying learning needs, strengths, and interests and the school’s curricular goals. The physical environment is not simply unstructured; it is deliberately curated and cultivated to foster learners’ thriving. In the Thriving Paradigm, moreover, multiple and permeable spaces are carefully linked together, so learners don’t simply meander from one spot to the next but move with purpose and clear expectations.

At the International School of Brussels, the connected campus contributes to a culture of collaboration and high expectations.

From… A classroom-based approach to learning

To… A community-based approach to learning

Recognizing that young people are part of many nested communities (in and out of school), physical space can function to either isolate or catalyze relationships within these communities. As much as we can, we want to create structures that allow young people to build strong and meaningful relationships with teachers, peers, and outside-of-school community members. The Learning Community Design Pattern is a key pillar of the Thriving Paradigm as it allows both teachers and students to work and learn in relationship-centered environments. A community-based approach doesn’t limit learning to the walls of the school building but rather seeks ways to actualize anytime, anywhere learning.

A Learning Suite nested inside a Learning Community hosts an advisory group going through a morning circle routine.

From… Corridors function as arteries to get from one place to another

To… Corridors function as diverse learning spaces that foster connectivity and collaboration  

One of the biggest surprises I experienced when I started learning about school design – hallways can take up to 30% of the overall area of a school! To think that these spaces haven’t traditionally been seen as learning spaces… such a waste. In the Thriving Paradigm, corridors become dynamic places with excellent natural light, walkability, family-size groupings of small lockers, and embedded learning zones. In addition to contributing to a more connected and relationship-centered campus, this part of the paradigm shift dramatically increases the utilization rate, meaning buildings can be smaller and less expensive with a reduced carbon footprint.

The combination of small locker groupings, well-selected furniture, beautiful vistas, and accessible Learning Studios with garage doors make the corridors a place to be.
For those looking to do a small spatial pilot with an immediate impact, check out the Design Pattern Active Hallway.

From… School safety is mostly focused on building security

To… School safety takes a holistic approach that addresses building security and each student’s mental, physical, & social-emotional health

Schools can maintain physical building security through best practices like layered access, multiple egresses, and the ability to lockdown learning communities. But, school safety that doesn’t consider the holistic health and well-being of the individuals in the environment simply isn’t good enough for our students and teachers. With our deeper understanding of how trauma impacts learning, the ongoing reality of youth mental challenges, and teacher burnout, it’s never been more important to create holistically safe school environments for learners of all ages.

The secure front doors at Schiffer Collaborative High School are part of an entry sequence that is warm and welcoming for students, staff, and visitors alike.

From… Outdoor spaces are primarily used for recess and sports

To… Outdoor spaces are seen as essential places to learn, connect with nature, and engage in physical activity

In discovery visits that we’ve done with young people all over the world, one of the two most common desires we hear is more outdoor learning (the other is more small, intimate spaces). Pairing this desire with the myriad of health, wellness, and educational benefits that result from connecting with nature, it’s a no-brainer for schools to shift mindsets and create spaces that get kids learning outdoors.

Garden beds, age-appropriate patio furniture, and a shaded pavilion make this outdoor space at Shorecrest Prep a regular part of a young learners’ daily experience.

From… Institutional, static furniture & fixtures that tend to support lots of sitting and obedience

To… Comfortable, diverse, and agile furniture & fixtures that tends to support more movement and choice

The way we furnish our learning spaces says a lot about our priorities for how the space will be used. While rows of institutional desks where students sit for most of the day are no longer en vogue, many of today’s schools still lack the diversity of spaces and furnishings that support genuine student agency and social-emotional learning.

In this Learning Studio (modern classroom) at Eden Park Elementary School, students have many options to sit (or stand) to meet their real-time needs.

From… Good lighting and acoustics are seen as a luxury

To… Good lighting (especially natural light throughout the school) and acoustics are prioritized

Historically speaking, citadels didn’t have good natural lighting. There was a reason for this: it made the structure more defensible. Throughout the 20th-century, three-building types, unfortunately, continued the tradition of the inward orientation of these historical fortresses: shopping malls, prisons, and schools. Early in my work with Fielding International, I asked Randy Fielding what he believed to be the most important feature of a good design school. He surprised me by saying “good lighting.” The more I’ve walked through windowless hallways and classrooms with uniform fluorescent lamps, the more I get his point. And as any teacher who has been in noisy open environments can attest to, good acoustics are critically important.

The generous floor to ceiling and clerestory windows bring in an abundance of natural light to this Learning Commons at Norma Rose Point School

From…The physical environment lacks a strong sense of local ethos, often isolated from the rest of the surrounding community

To… The physical environment embodies local values and context, often aiming to become more of a whole community asset

A school can feel like it’s an integrated part of the community it serves. The structure itself can blend with local elements, like Strathcona Tweedsmuir below using the angled roof peaks and organic material and patterns to feel part of the natural world around it. Schools can incorporate locally-sourced natural materials for both environmental and wellness benefits. Through space and programming, creative schools actively seek opportunities to become a vibrant community hub that welcomes a wide and diverse part of the community. In doing so, they bring in local connections and make learning for the young people they serve more authentic and relevant.

Strathcona Tweedsmuir was designed to nestle in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.
Schools looking to ground learning in authentic, relevant learning and create wraparound services can consider the Joint, Shared, & Integrated design pattern.

Bring the Thriving Paradigm Home

If you are someone who wants to move towards a spatial paradigm that aligns with your commitment to thriving kids, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’ve worked with school communities in over 50 countries with a wide range of available resources and readiness, and we are happy to provide guidance to identify the next steps that work best for you.

Author’s note: I want to thank Cierra Mantz and Glen Fielding for the incredible collaboration in editing and offering suggestions to bring the Thriving Paradigm alive.

Nathan Strenge is a Senior Learning Designer at Fielding International, USA Country Lead at HundrED, and Founding Board Chair of Exploration High School. He can be reached at [email protected] or found on LinkedIn.

6 Elements of Thriving Learners

By: Randy Fielding and Nathan Strenge        

One year ago from this publication, on January 6, 2021, people from around the world witnessed an American Insurrection. A confluence of factors led to this event, and it’s not the goal of this article to diagnose them. What is worthy of investigation is thinking about the role education can play to create conditions that counteract the forces that led to the Insurrection.

At Fielding International, we are known for designing schools that foster authentic collaboration, creativity, wellness, and learner agency through the built environment. We do this using a holistic design approach that aims to align a school’s vision, educational program, and physical environment. We have seen what happens when schools do what Todd Rose describes in The End of Average, which is to stop designing for some false middle, and rather design to reach the edges of the population. Any school community can do this, but it takes a fundamental rethinking of priorities. It starts by asking three essential questions:

  1. What makes learners thrive?
  2. What are the environmental characteristics that support thriving?
  3. What are the barriers to thriving?

After two decades of designing reimagined schools in over 50 countries, we’ve put our own spin on question #1: what makes learners thrive. We are embedding these into the creation of a free open-source library of design patterns for thriving learners at SchoolPatterns.com. As you read, we encourage you to think about the future impact if more of our young people were to learn in environments that adapt to each person’s unique set of needs, gifts, and life experiences through these six elements.

Safety & Wellness

St. Martin de Porres High School, an environment where safety & wellness are nurtured

We can see several characteristics that nurture a feeling of safety and wellness in the image of St. Martin de Porres High School above. The soft seating and small clusters of lockers are designed for comfort and can equally serve both individuals and family-size groups. In contrast, large banks of lockers lining a corridor require each individual to turn their back to a large, noisy group of peers, making it difficult for meaningful interactions and a barrier to a sense of safety and wellness.

The wood-paneled partial wall at the center provides a solid, comforting edge to the soft-seating area. The view outside to trees and the city offers students a sense of connection to something larger than themselves, as well as a long vista that allows them to change their eye’s focal length–essential to eye health. The generous work surface in the foreground invites students to carve out their own space and spread out their work, while the green planter in the foreground provides a soft and oxygen-enhancing edge to the work counter.

Many of the physical security measures go unnoticed by the untrained eye, including mechanisms to layer access inside and outside the building. This is international – good design in this domain creates spaces that foster movement, well-being, and social connections without sacrificing physical safety.

Impact: When healthy people feel a sense of safety, both internally and externally, a key aspect of their foundational needs is met. They are in a mental and physical state that prepares them for deeper learning, critical thinking, and enriching relationships.

Purpose & Joy

Academy of the Holy Names Middle School, an environment where purpose & joy are nurtured

We can see several characteristics that nurture a feeling of purpose and joy in the image of the Academy of the Holy Names Middle School above. The varied seating and desk styles and arrangements invite students to be intentional about their purpose–to work independently, to collaborate actively, or read quietly.

Abundant natural light in conjunction with low-glare general lighting, complimentary wall surface colors, and sparks of colorful accent lighting contribute to an atmosphere of joyful, human-centered beauty rather than institutional sameness.

The generous arched window offers a dramatic visual connection to the world outside. Multiple doorways to the left offer fluid connections to adjacent spaces and learners. Together with a light-filled room, learners feel a sense of safe enclosure and stimulating and uplifting connections–key building blocks of purpose and joy.

Impact: Experiencing environments that bring joy and catalyze purpose-driven learning unleashes human potential. When authenticity and relevancy become the drivers of curriculum and pedagogy, community difference-making becomes a north star.

Curiosity & Mastery

Mound Fort Innovation Center, an environment where curiosity & mastery are nurtured

We can see several characteristics that nurture a feeling of curiosity and mastery in the image of Mound Fort Innovation Center above. Round tables near large windows invite learners to engage each other in conversations about their own questions, aspirations, and the needs of the world around them. Standing height workbenches with space on all four sides allow learners to gather, define problems, brainstorm solutions, and create prototypes.

Wide openings between spaces with overhead glass doors welcome learners to explore the work of multiple groups while providing the flexibility to focus, with the doors down, or engage adjacent groups with the doors open. A high, open ceiling provides a sense of space and freedom to explore problems, a diversity of solutions, and to see the big picture with an open mind. Mobile tool carts, restocked to support the needs of changing, interdisciplinary projects, arm students to gain mastery in their chosen challenges.

Impact: Curiosity is the desire to learn. When humans desire to learn something, they pursue it with vigor until they have a deep understanding and mastery of it. When environments support interdisciplinary learning that addresses real community problems, civic engagement is a natural outcome.

Love & Belonging

High School for Recording Arts, an environment where love & belonging are nurtured

A variety of spatial elements foster a feeling of love & belonging in the image of High School for Recording Arts above. At the center, the Learning Commons serves as the beating heart of the Learning Community, with soft seats, gathering and performance areas, abundant natural light, and views to the city. The variety of adjacent activity zones and diversity of views provide a sense of belonging and connectedness.

The Learning Commons is surrounded by Learning Studios where each student belongs to an advisory group of 12-18. The advisory groups are small enough to allow each student to develop strong relationships with each other and an adult advisor. High-back couches in the heart provide a sense of enclosure and individual space, tempering the potential for over-stimulation by the variety of activity zones and visual connections.

Glass overhead doors connecting Learning Studios to the central Learning Commons allow advisory groups to operate in a quieter, cozier mode or to connect to the larger community. Even with the doors closed, the visual connection provides a sense of belonging to a larger group. (This is in contrast to the “cells and bells” classroom and corridor model, where classrooms are siloed).

As one of our oldest clients and co-located in the Twin Cities, we’ve had the opportunity to connect with many HSRA students and alumni. It’s been incredible how many times over the years we’ve heard some version of, “that school saved my life.” When we dig into what was so valuable about the experience, it almost always comes down to a feeling of love & belonging through authentic relationships with teachers and peers.

Impact: Elie Wiesel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” When our kids grow up in communities that center on deep and trusting relationships, they cultivate love & belonging. Through diverse interactions with growing social circles, kids actively learn to care about the world and the people who inhabit it; they learn to love themselves for the uniquely incredible individual they are, and they seek to spread that love to others.

Autonomy & Opportunity

YCIS Ronghua Early Learning Center, an environment where autonomy & opportunity are nurtured

A variety of sensory-rich activity zones inside, and direct access to equally engaging outdoor learning spaces outside, provide choice and opportunities for young learners at the YCIS Early Learning Center in Shanghai.

Curved wooden platforms at various heights evoke the varied topography found in nature. Students choose paths and spaces with autonomy rather than satisfying requirements for “seat time.” Platform edges and soft floor cushions serve as additional seats–learners have the opportunity to choose the type and location where they sit and how they engage their work and each other.

Large windows connect students visually to outdoor water play, topographically varied outdoor learning spaces, and a musical discovery structure; all engaging children’s sense of adventure, opportunity, and autonomy.

Impact: Giving young people opportunities to learn independently and to seek out meaningful experiences gives rise to self-efficacy. Young people who believe in themselves and are in supportive environments seek out new opportunities, new challenges, new connections, and new ways of contributing to the world around them.

Nature & Beauty

Singapore American School, an environment where nature & beauty are nurtured

A universal yearning and priority that we hear in experiences with learners around the world is the desire for more connections to nature. As we engage in deeper discussions across cultures, we also hear that the surprising, ever-changing patterns in nature represent the essence of beauty, spirituality and connectedness.

The new entry at Singapore American School, pictured above, evokes nature through the organically shaped petal forms, the natural wood cladding, the randomly angled column forms, and the green vines above. Nature, beauty and a place to gather and connect grounds us in the beauty of common values and who we are as human beings.

Impact: There can be beauty in the built environment and in the natural environment. When young people grow up connected to nature and in beautiful spaces, they come to care for both. This burgeoning sense of responsibility comes with greater wellness and appreciation for the arts, for the Earth, and for life itself.


What do spatial design patterns have to do with the events in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021? What role can education play to create conditions that counteract the forces that led to the Insurrection? How are we going to cultivate a generation of civically-minded problem solvers who are ready to take on the challenges facing humanity throughout the 21st-century and beyond? These questions boil down to what we most desire out of our schools. If we desire the six elements for thriving learners, we have to actively design for them. This can be done, but isn’t going to depend on individual heroes or a new policy mandate. It’s going to be done locally, with groups of young people, educators, parents, and community members coming together, discussing, and taking action on the three essential questions:

  1. What makes learners thrive?
  2. What are the environmental characteristics that support thriving?
  3. What are the barriers to thriving?

We at Fielding International have seen the real-time effects of thriving learners. Kids and teachers have stronger relationships; they feel safe and loved; they pursue learning opportunities of relevance and meaning; they are healthy in mind, body, and spirit. These schools are cultivating a holistic ecosystem that gives kids opportunities to contribute to a thriving pluralistic society and healthy planet.

And a natural byproduct of this: kids who learn in these environments are primed to squash hatred, misinformation, ungrounded conspiracies, and extreme tribalism. We believe the long-term effects of this are existential and beyond measure. That’s why we are making our Design Patterns for thriving learners freely accessible to anyone, anywhere at SchoolPatterns.com.

If we can be helpful in your pursuit of environments where learners thrive, please reach out to us.

Nathan Strenge is a Senior Learning Designer at Fielding International, USA Country Lead at HundrED, and Founding Board Chair of Exploration High School. He can be reached at [email protected] or found on LinkedIn.

Welcoming Entry and Layered Access

Great schools foster a sense of safety, belonging and beauty at first sight. Even before entering a building, we can see the elements that foster community and connection–key ingredients in safe, healthy communities of learning.

Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” identified a key element of safe, vital communities as “eyes on the street” — the presence of people with a visual connection to the building entry.

Two problems work against a welcoming presence: one, a tendency to create grandiose, institutional entries rather than human-centered spaces, and two, the need for a strategy to address violent threats.

People don’t tend to congregate in the center of large open spaces–instead, they hug the edges, and look for the small amenities that support human comfort. A canopy with protection from rain and sun, places to sit, views to people learning and socializing inside, and a view to an administrative office are all key elements that create a welcoming entry.

Increasing violence in schools during the late 20th and early 21st centuries has spurred the science of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Layered access and natural surveillance, an extension of eyes on the street, are core design principles for safe campuses. As the sketch below illustrates, there is always at least one layer of security to public spaces, and two layers of security to Learning Communities.

Layered Access

The sketch below is a conceptual view of the elements of a welcoming entry, strong indoor-outdoor connections, layered access and learning communities working together in harmony.

Welcoming Entry, Campus Concept

The campus concepts for a welcoming entry are also illustrated in the photograph below of Texas Tech University Costa Rica on San Jose’s Avenue Escazu, where living, working, and learning are holistically integrated

Texas Tech Costa Rica

Altus Schools: Personalized Learning, Flexible Schedules, Beautiful Spaces, Repeatable Quality

I met Mary Bixby at a San Diego storefront alternative school 21 years ago. She explained how learners had flexible schedules–some attended in the morning, some in the afternoon–and worked at their own pace through an online curriculum and met with their advisor for goal setting and tutoring.

By 2000, Bixby was already six years into serving high school students not successful in traditional environments through the Charter School of San Diego (CSSD). Since then Bixby has launched two more nonprofits supporting seven more charter schools with 35 locations in southern California. Altus Schools is the unifying network brand–it’s a set of shared design principles, an instructional model, and a beautiful template for learning environments. For its robust and repeatable support systems and use of data to improve, CSSD, the Altus anchor school, won the 2015 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and became one of the few educational organizations to win the nation’s quality award.

In her 2018 book Charter Storm, Bixby outlines four qualities for new nonprofit public schools:

  1. Purpose: Students and teachers are engaged in goal-oriented work and are passionate about reaching achievable objectives.
  2. Mastery: Students and teachers strive for excellence.
  3. Autonomy: Students and teachers have the freedom to approach curriculum in innovative ways.
  4. Safety and Security: Students and teachers are physically safe and secure.

These values have driven the steady growth of Altus Schools in Southern California.

Altus Learning Model

Jay Garrity, head of instructional services, explains that students enroll in Altus schools for several reasons: they are behind on credits (about 58%), high transiency, bullying or other social issues at a former school, pregnancy or parenting, a special talent that requires a flexible schedule, and/or the freedom to accelerate including early college credit opportunities.

About 60% of Altus learners are LatinX, about 70% are economically disadvantaged, and about 20% have special needs.

The blended learning program, classified as independent study in California, starts with a personalized plan focused on a post-high school goal. Learners take one or two courses at a time and complete a course every three or four weeks. After making progress, some learners return to their residential traditional school, others progress to graduation. Altus schools have served more than 48,000 learners with 15,000 graduates.

While Edgenuity is the core curriculum, it is highly customized and supplemented by teacher-developed resources. The networks use Naviance for guidance and NWEA for interim assessments. Illuminate provides data dashboards.

For the first two decades of operation, learners visited a resource center daily for about three hours. In Spring 2020, the pandemic forced a quick shift to fully remote delivery. This fall, resource centers reopened and about half of the current 3,500 learners visit a resource center on a regular basis.

Most resource centers are open from 7 am to 7 pm with a morning teacher, midday teacher, and evening teacher. Because they support multiple subjects, they are encouraged to gain dual certification.

Resource centers are open 12 months a year with particularly busy summer months as learners enroll to get back on track academically.

Altus University offers professional learning for staff including trauma-informed practices and strategies for promoting youth mental health.

Bixby is proud of high levels of staff satisfaction and retention as a result of clarity of purpose and the support of a scaled organization with strong learning and growth opportunities.

Resource Centers 

Altus resource centers look like high-tech workspaces with modular Steelcase furniture. There are a variety of spaces for individual work and meetings with teachers. There are conference rooms for small groups, video walls for presentations, science lab stations, and a kitchen.

Laptop and desktop computers are provided at the resource centers. Chromebooks and hotspots are available for home use.

Resource Centers are in highly accessible areas from south San Diego County to San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Elementary Innovation 

The Altus network includes one elementary center, Audeo Kids, that supports homeschoolers with a hybrid model. Students attend the resource center one a day a week in grade span groups and work at home the other four days learning through synchronous and asynchronous digital resources as well as print materials.

Six teachers support 152 learners with a mix of on-site and virtual lessons. The English and math curriculum is MobyMax. The social studies curriculum is from HMH.

Quality Leadership

Altus networks benefit from a talented leadership team that executes an 11-step strategic planning process in four phases (approach, development, learning, integration) in annual cycles including a weeklong summer offsite retreat.

The network never relied on private grant funding for growth or sustainability. Every site is managed for quality outcomes and fiscal sustainability.

For 20 years, Bixby has advanced a kids-first mindset, rigorous strategic planning, and quality over quantity. Expansion opportunities for Altus networks are limited in California given the political climate but the robust template could inspire and support education leaders in other states.

This post was originally published on Forbes.

Learning Walls Versus Teaching Walls

Problem: The purpose of a traditional classroom is to focus attention on the teacher at the front of the room, referred to as the teaching wall. In a learner-centered paradigm, where the whole environment is a learning resource, focusing resources on one teaching wall fails to leverage the natural curiosity of each individual learner.

Additionally, traditional classroom and corridor designs limit the natural human inclination to extend our mind and our learning to the spaces around us, as described by Annie Murphy Paul in The Extended MInd.

Lastly, traditional classroom walls include a cacophony of teacher-directed educational displays, storage, white boards and technology, perpetuating the notion that it is the teacher’s space rather than the learner’s space.

Solution: We can foster increased movement, active learning and student agency through a variety of small changes to the physical environment. Permeable connections between spaces invite learners to move from one space to the other. Spaces can be connected with open archways, sliding, folding or overhead doors, providing teachers and students with choices in how they move and interact.

Writable walls invite students to get out of their chairs to collaborate and share ideas. Niches and reading caves invite students to follow active movement with quiet, reflective learning. Climbing walls needn’t be limited to gymnasiums–they can be incorporated in a variety of learning spaces.

Writable walls invite students to get out of their chairs to collaborate and share ideas.

Randy Fielding

In addition to purposeful architectural and interior design, educators, coaches and advisors can enhance the use of walls by understanding and applying the basic design principles of harmony and hierarchy. Rather than positioning dozens of small pieces of paper across all the walls, highlight a selected number of elements, creating a hierarchy of focal points.

Neutral wall space is also essential for harmonious design, providing areas for the eyes to rest. Consider your experience in an art museum–vistas, paths and focus points are carefully orchestrated to offer both quiet reflection and also excitement.

In the image above, there are a limited number of elements in two rooms, with plenty of white or neutral space surrounding. The climbing spaces, small circular nest spaces, writable surfaces and student displays invite movement while engaging curiosity, eyes, hands and minds.

For those who want to go deeper, IDEO and Stanford’s d.School has curated a bunch of resources to help schools understand why and how to Defront the Classroom”

In the next blog, we’ll explore two patterns related to Safety & Wellness. Taken together, these strategies serve to deinstitutionalize learning environments in pursuit of a spatial paradigm in which every person is holistically safe, healthy, and empowered.

Learning In Community–What Does it Look Like?

What does learning spread across a community look like?

When the whole neighborhood is the school, we can see learning happening everywhere, including homes, libraries, school buildings, offices, health clubs, museums, community gardens, retirement homes and parks, to name a few.

In its description of community-based learning ecosystems, Education Reimagined describes the dynamic possibilities when neighborhoods function as schools. An ever-evolving web of relationships sparks student curiosity and provides opportunities for learners, businesses and community organizations to identify and solve problems together. While every community includes opportunities for connected learning, the relationships needed to function as an integrated whole are often missing or need strengthening.

Education Reimagined notes that there is no finish line in this work and asks us to imagine how we can transform our own communities. Using my own lens as an architect and global traveler, I can offer some insights into the physical environments best-suited for neighborhoods that serve as schools.

We chose a sketch of a traditional town square as our key pattern image because the character, scale and interrelationships between buildings illustrate the pattern of a thriving neighborhood. Whether it’s a traditional European city or a Disney theme park, millions of people each year enjoy the sense of connection and power of place offered by walkable, human-scaled environments. When learning ecosystems place high value on community connections, a natural benefit is more “eyes on the street,” (a term coined by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of the Great American City) a pivotal concept in safe neighborhoods.

A key principle in this human-centered approach to design is the celebration of public space, including the space between buildings. The sense of beauty and well-being that we feel in a town square or piazza is not limited to any individual building–rather, it’s based on the dynamic interconnections between buildings, sidewalks, streets, parks, trees, and people–we experience the space and place as a beautiful whole. Leveraging Neighborhood as School connects learning to this beautiful whole, immediately adding authenticity and purpose to the learner’s experience.

Leveraging Neighborhood as School connects learning to a beautiful whole, immediately adding authenticity and purpose to the learner’s experience.

Randy Fielding

While human-centered, neighborhood-scale design is a beautiful aspiration for any community, for low-income, racialized communities with housing and food insecurity, an integrated approach to neighborhood design is both aspirational and an essential step towards wholeness.

Case-study in Progress

We can see a small step in this direction in a sketch that I created for High School for Recording Arts, in St. Paul, Minnesota (affectionately known as Hip Hop Hi, a nickname that I gave them during our first project together in 2001).

In the sketch below, you can see the school on the lower left, which includes Studio 4, a commercial recording studio. On the right, you’ll find the proposed impact hub, which includes Diverse Media Institute (DMI), a media arts college, an entrepreneurship hub, where businesses and students work together, and a retail incubator space that supports mentorships, innovation, and real-world experience for students.

The impact hub offers reciprocal benefits–not only to learners but in offering businesses access to brilliant, creative youth talent.

Breaking bread together anchors a community, and in support of that universal principle, a restaurant is included. Staffed in partnership with DMI’s culinary arts program, the restaurant faces both University Ave, a main commercial street in St. Paul, as well as the central green. The restaurant supports student education, and employment, while reinforcing the project as a center of a walkable neighborhood.

The impact hub, DMI, retail incubator, and restaurant mean that there will be people with “eyes on street” day and night, a major asset to the local community.

Together, each of these components form a neighborhood where living, learning and business spaces create a holistic ecosystem, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The benefits include safe residences for housing insecure students, multi-general connections and inspiration for artists, businesses and learners, employment opportunities, and safer streets.

How might we apply these principles to embed learning throughout our communities? Who would benefit if this were common in our schools today?

Connecting to Nature is Essential to Our Well-being

Our world appears painfully divided, and yet, when we ask educational visioning workshop participants around the world what is most important to them, a connection to nature consistently rises to the top.

While engaging a group of elders regarding the design of the Piqqusilivvik Inuit Cultural Learning Center in Clyde River, Nunavut, I asked them: “what was most important to you?” Given the harshness of the Arctic Circle, I assumed that the answer would relate to shelter.

To my surprise and delight, the answer, in Inuktitut, translated into English, was an enthusiastic “being out on the land!”

We were meeting inside a conference room, and I asked if they would like to finish our meeting at the site. The agreement was unanimous, and as we got into pickup trucks and headed out into the forest, I sensed a powerful feeling of purpose and joy in the group.

We stood in a circle on the site for the new Cultural Learning Center and school, and talked about what was important. Because of the mist, we couldn’t see far. We were in a kind of misty wonderland. Slowly, in a lovely natural rhythm, the elders shared their thoughts about wind, snow and sun.

Providing leadership in the alignment of the vision, educational program and physical environment is our most essential role at Fielding International, but at that moment, I didn’t feel like a leader, but a much-humbled listener. Each design idea that I had carried to the project, including the location of the entry, use of windows, the outdoor animal skin processing area, and main utility connections proved to be ill-suited.

For the Inuit, the connection to nature is a foundation of the past and present culture.

Randy Fielding

“Mr. Fielding, your sketches are very nice, but it’s best not to put the entry there, because of the wind, for much of the year, the entry will be covered in 3 meters of snow.”

“Mr. Fielding, your ideas are very smart, but it’s best not to put the outdoor tanning area there, because of the wind, the smell will be very bad inside.”

“Mr. Fielding, we appreciate your good thinking, but it’s best not to put the heating gas line feed there, because of the wind, the smell will be bad inside.”

After their gentle feedback, the elders proceeded to describe a vision and educational program that included Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional Inuit values, knowledge, behavior, perceptions and expectations), child-rearing, throat singing, and drum dancing.

To close our meeting, we held hands and ended with a prayer for the project, feeling embraced and blessed by the forest around us.

For the Inuit, the connection to nature is a foundation of the past and present culture. What does it mean for their future? If we circle back to the top skills identified by the World Economic Forum from the initial blog, which include complex problem-solving, working with people, self-management, innovation, originality, and critical analysis–where does a connection to nature fit in? This is a design challenge that local communities can wrestle together, and outdoor learning Design Patterns can be a tool to help in that process.

Find Indoor-Outdoor Connections and many other related ones at SchoolPatterns.com.

Learning Communities Change the Paradigm

Problem: A typical “cells-and-bells” classroom model is organized around grade levels and administrative convenience rather than human needs. This spatial model shapes a paradigm with ripple effects on things like scheduling, pedagogy, wellness, and student agency. The model typically lacks both diversity of spaces and functional agility, creating barriers for schools seeking vibrant collaboration, creativity, and complex problem solving in their approach to learning.

If convenience and same age groupings underpins the conventional classroom model, what type of organization does human-centered design suggest? Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar provides insights into the essential characteristics of effective social groups.

According to Dunbar, successful group sizes range up to 150 people. Beyond that, it’s difficult to sustain strong social bonds. As such, a group of 20 to 30 students and a teacher doesn’t provide the critical mass of relationships to support and challenge all learners.  Meanwhile, an elementary, middle, or high school of 400 plus students doesn’t provide the level of connection needed to allow all learners to feel safe, connected and known.

Solution: The Learning Community Model changes the paradigm by grouping 50-150 learners and 3-6 teachers, or coaches, in a variety of spaces with permeable walls. Learning Studios (an updated, agile version of the classroom), Learning Suites (connected Studios with moveable wall), Teacher Collaboration space, Active Labs and Small Group Rooms of varying sizes and character create a holistic environment that supports a full spectrum learning.

The paradigm shift to a Learning Community Model fosters collaboration, creativity, and wellness — catalyzing multimodal learning that is more authentic, fulfilling, and student-centered.

In addition to right-sizing cohorts and strengthening relationships, the Learning Community model supports the daily cycle of learning that underpins creative & complex problem-solving. This kind of problem-solving relies on empathy, information gathering, problem defining, and iterative cycles to develop solutions–all activities that lend themselves to active, social and fluidly connected spaces. At the same time, problem-solving relies equally on individual, focused work which includes activities like personal reflection and creation that require little to no collaboration.

This idea is supported by the research found in the book, The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul, where she states, “…complex problem-solving proceeds in two stages, the first of which entails gathering the facts we need to clarify the nature of the problem and begin constructing a solution. In this stage, communication and collaboration are essential. But there is a second phase, equally vital: the process of generating and developing solutions…During this phase, studies find that excessive collaboration is actually detrimental.” Thus, the Learning Community model allows for the balance of individual and collaborative spaces to shift rapidly, depending on the needs of each learner and the context of the learning.

The Learning Community model allows for the balance of individual and collaborative spaces to shift rapidly, depending on the needs of each learner and the context of the learning.

Randy Fielding

The Learning Community spatial model is well-suited to support Microschools, which may be a stand-alone school or act as a school-within-a-school. The benefits and potential of Microshools have been explored in depth at Getting Smart, which can be accessed here. Creating a microschool using the Learning Community Design Pattern as a spatial model is a wonderful approach for a school or district wanting to be more innovative but unsure what will work.

You can find sketches of the Learning Community pattern as well as various spatial components, including Learning Suites, Small Group Rooms, and Teacher Collaboration Rooms along with 70+ freely available Design Patterns at SchoolPatterns.com. School leaders, teachers, students, designers and community partners can use these patterns to identify the core elements that will support their vision and goals for learning.

Personal Space for Safety, Wellness and Autonomy

According to the World Economic Forum, the top ten job skills of tomorrow include self-management competencies such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.

Are we creating spaces in our schools to support these skills? The answer is no, or rarely. When we engage students in vision and design pattern workshops, the need for quiet, small reflective spaces is always at the top of their list.

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writes compellingly about the need for cave spaces, nests, small meeting rooms and low sensory rooms:

“At school, you might have been prodded to come “out of your shell”—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go and that some humans are just the same.”

The need for accessible breakout spaces and low sensory rooms that support all learners, including introverts and all neurodivergent learners, has long been recognized, but the solutions have often been based on myths about learning and psychology.

In an effort to create quiet, low sensory spaces for students that may feel overwhelmed by too much stimulation, designers have often created window-less, cell-like enclosures, making many learners feel even more anxious for having their sense of autonomy taken away. We often hear from well-meaning special education teachers that we should limit openings to high windows, so as not to distract individuals. However, views to green spaces actually have a calming effect.

The need for accessible breakout spaces and low sensory rooms that support all learners, including introverts and all neurodivergent learners, has long been recognized, but the solutions have often been based on myths about learning and psychology.

Randy Fielding

Curtains, typically relegated to residential use in the past, add a soft, personal touch to institutional spaces, while also providing acoustical absorption and a sense of autonomy in their easy adjustment. Soft seating, area rugs, a muted color palette and varied, low glare lighting are also important elements in creating quiet, reflective, human-centered spaces.

You can find sketches for cave spaces, small meeting rooms and low sensory spaces along with 70+ freely available Design Patterns at SchoolPatterns.com. School leaders, teachers, students, designers and community partners can use these patterns to identify the core elements to support their vision and goals for learning.

Design Patterns can be assembled to form an integrated ecosystem that includes the school’s vision, educational program, and physical space. Many schools will incorporate 20 or more patterns in their design–together they form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

The library of Design Patterns continues to grow, and school design teams are invited to join our journey, contributing their ideas for new patterns to expand our collective knowledge base.

Launch of Open-Source Library at SchoolPatterns.com

Trillions of dollars are spent on school construction each year, in each case, trying to create effective learning environments. But are they solving the right problems? According to the World Economic Forum, the top skills for 2025 include complex problem-solving, working with people, self-management, innovation, originality, and critical analysis. Are we creating spaces to support the skills that will make learners successful?

The answer is often no! Many schools maintain a “cells-and-bells” model of isolated classrooms and rigid corridors that get in the way of effective learning. In other cases, schools incorporate a handful of design ideas that look like they might support creative problem solvers but fail in the details.

Rather than starting from scratch, we invite you to share in an Open-Source Library of Design Patterns for creative learning environments. This web-based application was specifically designed to help school communities create learning environments that are deeply aligned with their mission and vision.  Each Design Pattern aims to solve a common problem encountered by schools working to create vision-aligned learning environments. Each pattern includes an annotated sketch, a problem and solution statement, illustrating photographs, and links to go deeper.

The concept of Design Patterns was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language,” where he writes:

“The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment and then describes the core of the solutions to that problem in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over without ever doing it the same way twice.”

Each Design Pattern aims to solve a common problem encountered by schools working to create vision-aligned learning environments.

Randy Fielding

You can find 70+ freely available design patterns at SchoolPatterns.com. School leaders, teachers, students, designers and community partners can use these patterns to identify the core elements to support their vision and goals for learning.

Design Patterns can be assembled to form an integrated ecosystem that includes the school’s vision, educational program, and physical space. Many schools will incorporate 20 or more patterns in their design–together they form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

The library of design patterns continues to grow, and school design teams are invited to join our journey, contributing their ideas for new patterns to expand our collective knowledge base.

This is the first in a series of weekly Design Patterns blogs published at GettingSmart.com. We welcome your participation!