Academic journal article Education Next

New Blueprints for K-12 Schools: Innovative Design Supports Blended Learning

Academic journal article Education Next

New Blueprints for K-12 Schools: Innovative Design Supports Blended Learning

Article excerpt

BLENDED LEARNING uses school time in a unique way, combining online instruction with traditional methods and giving students more agency over how, when, and where they learn. That third variable, the "where," calls for some serious rethinking of how school space is organized and deployed. In our architectural practice, we have found that design either supports or frustrates a school's mission--it is never an "innocent bystander."

This is particularly true for blended environments, where multiple activities happen at once: a small group of students might be listening to the teacher review a math concept, for instance, while others work nearby on a team science project, and still others work individually on wireless laptops. In a traditional classroom, this welter of activity would be impossible. Blended schools need a different blueprint.

At Wheeler Kearns Architects, an 18-person practice in Chicago, we recently had the opportunity to design, from scratch, new facilities for two charter schools, each one using a distinct blended-learning model. At both schools--one in our city and one in Los Angeles--educators saw blended learning as a way to custom-tailor the school experience for urban students whose backgrounds and learning needs varied widely. They hoped to personalize the education of each student and avoid the limitations of "teaching to the middle."

Blended learning--sometimes called hybrid learning--has been gaining ground in this country since the 1990s, as computer devices have become more personal, portable, and affordable. Hard data on its prevalence are hard to find, but a large majority of school districts have adopted blended learning at least to some degree, and many charter schools are using it "to rethink the entire school experience," according to Michael B. Horn of the Christensen Institute.

Intrinsic Schools

Melissa Zaikos began experimenting with online learning in the Chicago Public Schools, where she spent nine years as a Broad Fellow, most notably, running a group of high-performing schools on the southwest side of the city. After seeing promising results there, Zaikos left CPS to found Intrinsic Schools. With her first charter in hand, she started looking for a space to house a 900-student school and scale up her work with blended learning.

"When we created Intrinsic, we had two goals," Zaikos said. "First, we wanted to create life-changing opportunities and foster postsecondary success for our students. Second, we wanted to create a road map for other educators on how to do this in a sustainable and replicable way. The design of our school was critical to achieving both goals."


In 2012, Zaikos commissioned our firm to design the school, which would be Chicago's first high school built specifically for blended learning. She chose to use a rotational model of blended learning, one of several variations on the approach. Under this model, students rotate among learning methods throughout the day, including online learning. Typically, the school day might also include teacher instruction to small groups or one-on-one, plus collaborative projects and individual paper-and-pencil work. Our challenge was to create a variety of dedicated spaces where students could work relatively distraction-free yet teachers could still see and supervise the whole class.

A team of Intrinsic educators visited successful blended schools throughout the country while our firm started working on drawings and models for possible layouts. We followed a "design thinking" process, first empathizing as best we could with students and instructors to help us understand their daily challenges, then prototyping and testing our ideas. For the prototype phase, Intrinsic staged two pilots during school holidays, borrowing the multipurpose areas of neighborhood schools, where teachers could interact with students who volunteered to participate. …

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