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Redesigning Education: Rethinking the School Corridor

"I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder how we could have tolerated anything so primitive."
-John W. Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, "No Easy Victories" (1968)

Education reform is in the air and taking root in thousands of classrooms across the country. From overhauling No Child Left Behind to closing poorly performing schools and raising student expectations, the push for change is powerful. Yet, the space where most learning takes place—the school and classroom—has changed little over the last 200 years.

Even before students set foot in a classroom, most schools still are built like factories: long hallways, lined with metal lockers, transport students to identical, self-contained classrooms. School designers call these hallways "double-loaded corridors." The factory model of control and direct instruction still pervades most new schools. If we are to have thorough-going school reform, we must change the design model, too, starting with the place students first enter the school.

School designers have used the double loaded corridor for easy circulation. It met its single purpose of moving kids from one contained classroom to the next at the sound of the bell. Now, when every aspect of a school's design budget is being questioned, the square footage allocated to the double-loaded corridor accounts, on average, for up to 30% on the total. Roughly one-third of the typical school building is used not for learning, growing, or interacting, but for getting to the places where that happens.

Denver_School_of_Science_and_TechnologyPhoto courtesy of the American Architecture Foundation

Let's design hallways with human beings in mind. Dispense with the banging of metal lockers and the hallway chaos in favor of daylight, colors and the connection to the outside. Corridors can be spaces for informal learning, to display work, to meet and to reflect, as shown in the Denver School of Science and Technology designed by Klipp. Adding furniture, nooks, information portals and views into classrooms, or the outdoors will invite students and visitors to slow down and interact in new ways - to learn in the places that were formerly strictly for transport.

Thomas_Deacon_AcademyPhoto by Nigel Young/Foster+Partners

Better yet, get rid of corridors all together: Encourage learning to happen throughout a school building by creating spaces that allow ideas to circulate as readily as foot traffic. At Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough, England, designed by Foster + Partners, learning spaces freely flow into each other. Students can see different types of learning occurring all around them and every inch of the school can be used to educate.

At the Hellerup Skoll in Hellerup, Denmark designed by Arkitema Architects, the school's stairs and hallways double as a space where the whole school community can gather and learn together. The school leader's office is located in the center of the school, without walls, because he wanted to be able to see the students throughout the day and because he believed it was important for students to see adults interact professionally and respectfully with each other, setting an example for the young students.

Miami-Dade County Prototype SchoolPhoto by Dan Forer

Why pay to build and clean hallways when you live in a climate that allows people to be outside year-round? The Miami-Dade County Prototype School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, designed by M. C. Harry and Associates, Inc. has outdoor corridors and a "Main Street" gathering space, allowing students to get fresh air on gorgeous days. Or consider the Bronx Charter School for the Arts and how it maximized its space by having wide entrances and hallways that flow into each other. This configuration reduces the amount of space needed, allows students to see each other learning, and lets daylight permeate more spaces.

Working with educators, parents, and students, the design community can play an important role in transforming teaching and learning. We can start where students start—designing corridors that encourage ideas to circulate as freely as foot traffic.

Read Trung Le's blog Design Education
Browse more blogs by Expert Designers

Trung Le is a principal education designer at Cannon Design. Over the past two years he has helped lead an interdisciplinary group of designers and educators from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, to collaborate on a research project that resulted in the publication The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning. The term "the third teacher" is derived from Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning and who wrote about the three teachers of children: adults, peers and the physical environment. Environment, said Malaguzzi, is "the third teacher."