Student Performance in 21st Century Schools

Research identifies ways to create positive impacts on student learning through building design
[ Page 4 of 7 ]          
Sponsored by AMBICO Limited, ASI Group, Construction Specialties, dormakaba, Glen-Gery, Guardian Glass, Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating, and NanaWall Systems
By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP
This test is no longer available for credit

Individualization and Flexibility

Barrett and his research team make a case that when students and teachers feel a sense of ownership and control over their surroundings, learning outcomes can improve. This is manifested in several ways, but of particular interest to architects is the notion of creating spaces that can be flexible. In particular, spaces that allow the teacher to reconfigure things within learning spaces or provide different zones all contribute to an environment that offers a variety of learning spaces and activities. This finding seems to support many school client requests for more open and shared use of space. Moreover, with square footage becoming a premium, ways to utilize space efficiently is required.

The design question becomes how to achieve this flexibility in a way that enables multiple room layout configurations within a single space or opens transitional areas within circulation areas. Even more so, how can traditional classrooms transform into learning environments that are agile and adaptable, encouraging collaborative learning and facilitating large group, small group, team, and individual activities. If those spaces provide options for direct and open linkage to outdoor learning spaces too, then that certainly adds to the variety and stimulation potential for students, while providing opportunity for natural daylighting at the same time.

One of the solutions being used increasingly in schools are operable glass walls made of panels that can be easily moved to define smaller spaces when they are closed and larger spaces when they are open. From a learning perspective, this solution allows the creation of defined areas for focused learning or the opening up of larger common areas where multiple students can work together on a range of activities utilizing shared resources. Not only does this approach offer the sought after variety for students, it also means that teachers can share resources and support each other, fostering a better managed classroom environment. From an overall design perspective, creating such a flexible classroom configuration with operable glass walls can optimize or even reduce the needed floor space within a building envelope, which can translate into reduced construction costs.

Architects who have used this approach include John Brown, AIA, partner, Hollis + Miller Architects, who points out, “Connectivity, flexibility, and visibility were all very important concepts in the design of the spaces within our school projects. While we still needed the capability of closing off spaces for more traditional classroom and learning spaces, we also needed to open up the walls to accommodate larger groups, which would then allow for collaboration.” David T. Esely, AIA, senior project architect of the same firm, adds, “When closed, very little sound penetrates, which allows for diverse learning opportunities on both sides of the panels simultaneously. When the panels are open, the opportunities within the space transform and can then be tailored to specific instructors’ needs and requirements. This is all done with ease, with speed, and with frequency.”

Photos of classrooms with operable glass walls.

Photos courtesy of NanaWall Systems

Operable glass walls provide flexibility and connection of student learning spaces to larger, more collaborative spaces or to outdoor learning areas.

Among the practical benefits that these design professionals and others have seen by incorporating operable glass walls into schools, a number are worth noting:

  • Collaborative learning is fostered through group work activities. At the same time, the movable walls enable the separation of smaller groups for discussion, group projects, quiet zones, advanced or remedial work, test centers, teacher assistant-led groups, etc. Glass-filled space divisions also allow teachers to monitor multiple activities in functionally separated spaces.
  • When parents or other visitors volunteer in the classroom, they can use separated areas to work independently with students.
  • Classroom management is enhanced through the use of shared resources that offer common storage space for shared books, supplies, and computers, thus reducing redundant purchases.
  • Teamwork is encouraged by joining two or more classrooms with a shared space. This allows teachers to configure space to meet their needs quickly and easily.
  • Management of students is streamlined since one teacher can temporarily monitor two classes if another teacher has an emergency or needs a break.
  • Visual distractions can be minimized through the use of mixed transparent and opaque glazing, thus allowing seated students to be isolated from excessive distraction beyond the operable wall, while a standing teacher can monitor multiple spaces.
  • Separated spaces can also become cool off/recovery areas, offering isolated, private space for behavioral and emotional issues or disciplinary actions.
  • Health benefits are possible, particularly if the operable walls open directly to the outdoors and provide natural ventilation in the process.
  • Exterior operable glass walls can also add an abundance of natural daylight with the same benefits we have already discussed on this topic.

In multiple ways then, flexible learning spaces using movable glass walls provide architects with great design possibilities, teachers with more flexibility in how to configure spaces, students with more variety for improved learning, and school administrators with potentially better budget control.

Two photos of interiors with glass partitions.

Photos courtesy of NanaWall Systems

Flexible learning spaces that can be closed off for smaller or individual activities or opened up to allow for larger group activities provide benefits to students, teachers, designers, and administrators.

Individualization and Connection

Part of the process of feeling a sense of individual ownership and control within a school building involves having a sense of connection and wayfinding through corridors and public spaces in the building. The Barrett team found significance in having clear and orienting corridors that were wide and used just as corridors, not for storage or breakout spaces. They also identified safe and quick access to the school facility as important, which is right in line with the needs of many school administrators to assure proper access control and safety in schools. That usually means that it is up to architects to specify electronic and mechanical access control products that match the rigorous performance standards required in the K–12 school building environment. It also means providing a serviceable and secure solution for all openings, utilizing both concealed and surface mounted hardware.

Architects and educational programmers are always conscious of building safety and security. Identifying manufacturers and products that readily address those concerns with both traditional master key systems and the integration of electronic access control is often the task at hand in designing schools. Specifically, finding top-grade locks, closers, and exit devices that have been proven in school environments across the country is often paramount for durability, operability, and functionality. In this age of increasing use of electronic access control products, it is equally important to find a manufacturer that can offer a complete, durable, and flexible control system. That can include a full line of electronic, stand-alone, and wireless cylindrical and mortise locks as well as the electronic access control trim for exit devices. In the spirit of a coordinated system not only for function but for aesthetics too, at least one manufacturer offers door-closer products with a consistent look across different types and series due to the use of matching covers and trim. Lever designs for door handles are also consistent from series to series, be it mortise or cylindrical, and the finish options are complementary for all door hardware products.

It is common practice to work with a particular manufacturer during the design and specification writing stage that offers direct specification and product selection assistance to generate the appropriate safety and security solution. Erich Tolksforf, CSI, CDT, senior specification writer for James W. Buckley and Associates Inc., comments, “As a specification writer for an architectural firm, I am always confident in including the manufacturer in our designs. This way, I know the products are reliable, the lines and associated nomenclature are understood, and everyone can take advantage of their service support system. All of these factors are extremely beneficial to me in the execution of my job as well as providing our clients with a quality access control solution that will last for many years.”

Two photos of wide school interiors.

Photos courtesy of dormakaba

School designs that employ wide open corridors that allow students to make connections to different parts of the school are important but they also need to be safely secured with proper access control systems, both manual and electronic.


[ Page 4 of 7 ]          
Originally published in Architectural Record


Student Performance in 21st Century Schools
Buyer's Guide
Acoustic Doors, Frames, and Windows
Education facilities demand quiet environments for both students and teachers. AMBICO manufactures industry-leading acoustic swing and slide door assemblies. Doors are available in steel or wood veneer. For all classroom, industrial shop, gymnasium, music room, auditorium, studio, or stage applications, make AMBICO part of your sound-barrier solution.
AMBICO Limited
Plastic Laminate Partitions with Moisture Guard™ Edge Banding
Introducing the new Plastic Laminate Partitions with Moisture Guard™ Edge Banding. Our Moisture Guard™ Edge Banding fuses with the substrate, creating a seamless beveled profile that eliminates any unsightly black lines that appear in standard plastic laminate.
Floormations® is the new way to stop tracked-in dirt, debris, and water from entering your building. This aluminum-milled entrance flooring system is an innovative, durable solution available in a wide array of patterns and surface options, plus the ability to incorporate your own unique design or logo.
CS Sun Controls
CS Sun Controls are custom designed to attach to any type of building, and precision attachments are manufactured for all curtain wall or masonry projects. CS offers a range of applications designed to meet your project’s specific shading requirements. Design options include vertical and horizontal orientation, cantilevered, or suspended support.
Construction Specialties
ED900 Low-Energy Operator
With an innovative electromechanical drive and microprocessor motion control system, the ED900 is an advanced low-energy swing door power operator that is exceptionally quiet, safe, and easy to use. When operated manually, the ED900 demands little physical effort. Advanced power assist through the entire opening cycle makes even the heaviest-rated door feel light.
Glen-Gery Thin Brick
Thin brick is a full brick alternative that can expand your design potential. Thin brick’s space saving and affordability put real brick within reach for countless interior and exterior applications. Matching thin and full brick is available, and thin brick can also be used with our patented masonry support system Thin Tech®.
Guardian CrystalBlue™ Glass
Guardian CrystalBlue™ glass can be combined with many SunGuard® low-e products, giving architects a range of energy performances along with high visible light transmission in an in-demand soft blue color. CrystalBlue glass is available coated and uncoated at a 6-millimeter thickness in a variety of sizes.
Guardian Glass
NanaWall FlexSpace
NanaWall FlexSpace evolves traditional classrooms into learning environments that are agile and adaptable. Optimizing the limited floor space within the building envelope translates into reduced construction costs. The multiuse spaces also contribute to reduced operating costs as teachers can share resources and cross collaborate, creating a more efficiently run classroom.
Twenty Percent Greater Efficiency with a Mitsubishi Electric Hybrid Dedicated Outdoor Air System (DOAS)
PremiSys® Fusion hybrid DOAS systems deliver 100 percent outdoor air with more than 20 perfect greater efficiency than traditional DOAS systems. These systems maintain the quality and value of standardized products while earning valuable LEED points. Learn more at
Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating