The Personalization of Education

Male Student Writing Answer On Whiteboard

by John Tindall-Gibson, PhD | Learning Environment Planner

I believe that the educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological….  Of these two sides, the psychological is the basis. The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. 
                                                                                  — John Dewey

The personalization of education is a topic of interest to most educators today.  What is it and what does its widespread adoption signal for the design of learning spaces?

Katrina Stevens, Deputy Director in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, tells us that “Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner….”  She goes on to describe five concepts common to the definitions of personalization put forward by a number of organizations seeking to resolve the confusion surrounding the term:

– The pace of learning is adjusted
– Learning objectives, approaches, content and tools are tailored and
optimized for each learner

– Learning is driven by learner interests
– Learners are given choice in what, how, when, and where they learn
– Learning is often supported by technology

Personalization is a different instructional methodology that puts the student at the center rather than the teacher or curriculum.  It represents a shift in focus.  It is a movement away from the factory, one size fits all model of schooling.

Personalization of learning is not a new concept.  John Dewey wrote extensively about the importance of it more than a century ago.  What is new is the ability of digital technology to support it. Especially since the publication of Clayton Christensen’s book, Disrupting Class, there has been much speculation about what effects technology will have on education.  Personalization of education represents one of the many good ways that technology is disrupting education.  It used to be impossible for the high school English teacher with 120 students to personalize his/her instruction very much.  It is now becoming quite doable.

In practice, collaboration and conferencing are important elements of personalized learning.  Students and teachers need time and space to meet one-on-one to plan and discuss work, and to provide clarification and feedback.  For greater student agency students need opportunities to collaborate with their peers on subjects of common interest.  Student Commons, break out spaces, and flexible seating in classrooms are just a few of the means schools are finding to provide spaces for student collaboration.

Different types of learners graphic

In a more personalized educational environment, students and teachers need effective and reliable access to rich learning resources.  This of course requires significant broadband connectivity and robust IT infrastructure throughout the school facilities.  Student information and assessment platforms are in use in most school districts.  Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other states provide schools with extensive networks of library, research, and other useful resources.

Unlike schools without walls, personalization is not a fad or passing trend.  Look no farther than the teacher(s) you remember who took a personal interest in you. Learning is always personal.  Impactful learning is always deeply personal. Good teachers have forever personalized education through their sincere concern for each of their students.  The use of technology to support teachers in making their teaching more personal for each student will only grow as evidence of its demonstrable effectiveness proliferates.

Schools have always been warm, safe, inviting places for the young to learn what they need and want to know to continue to grow and prosper.  As technology facilitates the increasing personalization of education, schools will continue to be places where good teachers serve students as they always have, but more expansively, more inclusively, and in more personally meaningful ways. ♦


After Hours

Community Use of School Facilities After the Bell Rings

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by Scot Woodin, AIA | Principal

While not a new concept, after hours use of school buildings has become far more complex.  Taxpayer funded school facilities that offer academic, enrichment or other services to the general-public after and perhaps even during the school day, must balance both school and community needs. In many cases, consideration of these secondary uses for school facilities starts early in the project planning process, often before design begins. These “non-school” activities can be a catalyst for developing support for school funding votes.  Some schools may boast adequate facilities to host community meetings, others an interior walking track for use by senior citizens at designated times or even during the school day and yet others, such as specialized “maker spaces” can support both educational and community enrichment programs.

These types of programs face a variety of challenges. If the school is in use by other user groups during the school day, separation, privacy, and security need to be addressed early in the planning process. Some career and technical schools offer commercial services to a community such as auto repair, restaurants associated with a culinary program and salons associated with cosmetology programs. These programs help to integrate a school and its community while realizing significant educational benefits. In order to plan a project with these objectives, separate entrances, secure separation between public and school areas and advanced security and supervision are often warranted. Many schools now employ an identification and badging process that runs instantaneous CORI and Sex Offender checks before admittance can be gained.

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Cosmetology and other programs can invigorate a school with a commercial “main street” where learning is applied, and the school provides real service to the community.

When a school facility is used after hours for extended school and community functions, there are usually additional issues relating to compartmentalization of the building. Understanding the many ways that the building will be utilized on weekday evenings and on weekends is critical to overall school organization.  Preliminary planning will consider various entry strategies, security protocols and implications of extended use on mechanical and electrical systems. Extended day activities will seldom require use of the entire building as its operated during the regular school day. Therefore, design of the systems must consider flexibility so that the BMS (Building Management System) program can be easily adapted to heat, cool, and ventilate certain areas in use at given times. The capabilities of these systems require a user-friendly interface so that they can be easily modified when extended day program scheduling changes.

community use

Access control can be utilized to control distinct zones for educational, community and shared use spaces.

Gymnasiums, auditoriums, and cafeterias are the most common venues to host after-hours school and community functions, but recent trends create demand for use of other areas of the building.  Some of these spaces, which have originated or been redefined for 21st century learning standards, include “STEAM labs,” makerspaces, learning commons, black box theaters, and even general classrooms. They offer resources and equipment that is often attractive to educational clubs, civic groups, and other local organizations. With this increased use, a school building becomes a vital center of a community’s infrastructure, thrumming with activity at all hours of the day and night. Insight and experience in planning for this new reality will ensure that schools are designed appropriately to serve a community’s long-term needs well into the future.  ♦

Community Participation in the Design Process

5 Tips to Building Successful Project Support

Jim with Groupby Carl Franceschi, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, MCPPO | Principal

In any public construction project, engaging the community stakeholders is vital for a successful outcome. Whether the task is to renovate, add, or demolish an existing building and replace it with new construction achieving buy-in from all interested parties is a crucial step involving a wide array of community interests. These community participants include end-users of the facilities, taxpayers, and residents from the local neighborhood. Each of these parties will be affected by the project in various ways, but all of them can provide valuable information and insight to help determine the best location, program, design, or execution strategy. Other involved participants, such as developers, businesses, and local government officials are also valuable resources, with unique viewpoints. Gathering information from the community, and garnering broad-based support for the project sets the stage for a well-informed and positive design process.

There are many ways to build project support, we offer these five most effective tips:

1) Assemble the right Building Committee. The building committee should represent a broad spectrum of constituents. For instance, for a public school project, the building committee membership should not be limited to the superintendent, principal, and school committee; similarly a public library building committee should not be comprised of only the librarian and trustees. While such people are definitely key personnel with important contributions, they are (and are perceived to be) too vested in the outcome, with a limited community outlook. A broader cross-section of people that represent the full community is essential to ensure that the final project best serves the general public. These include politicians, community leaders, technical leaders, and educational leaders. Also, it is worth considering including on the Building Committee those who might be perceived to be against a project.

The committee should have strong independent leadership without vested interest one way or another. The committee should be large enough to represent the diversity of the community, often these means 15-20 people. In such cases there should be a smaller working group of 5–7 people that participate in more frequent meetings to deal with more detailed planning.

Carl with boards - Copy

2) Start Early with Community Participation. Committee participation is a process and a community should be considered a partner throughout the process from the very beginning. Community participation should not be viewed as a “sales pitch” at the end of a project. The building committee should start the process without preconceptions, and be open to community participation. Milestones should be used to identify the process. Ideally there should be at least three formal meetings or workshops with the community throughout the feasibility portion of the design process a first meeting to identify the needs, a second to discuss options, and a third to review the preferred option.

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3) Be Transparent. All members of the building committee and the design team should be open in advance and willing to share the basic goals, timeframe, processes with the public. All meetings should be open to the public, with the press and cable TV invited, if available. Also, the committee and design members should refrain from communicating or making decisions outside of these public meetings.; private emails are particularly to be avoided. Communications should be transparent and consistent with the spirit that this is truly a public project.

4) Communicate the need. Before considering any design options there must be a serious and a rigorous investigation to get to the essence of the project. The public needs to know “why” a building the project is necessary. Once the need (or needs) are identified, the committee should seek buy-in from the community. With that common understanding, the community can then move forward to focus on the next steps in the process- developing potential solutions.

Community image15) Seek meaningful input. During all interactions with community, the design team and building committee should be seeking meaningful input. Each meeting will be more effective if it is considered a “workshop” not a “presentation”. This implies sharing information, and working together towards a common goal. Without delegating their authority, the Building Committee and design team should treat the public as partners during these workshops and value their contributions. It is important to treat people with respect, seek meaningful input and respond to their concerns.

Community participation in the design process is a key strategy to successful building projects. Engaging the community members in a positive way not only results in a successful public building, it also builds respect, trust, and a sense of accomplishment among all those involved in the process. ♦

Designing Breakout Spaces for Schools

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by Ann Marie Procopio, IIDA, Director of Interior Design + Associate

When space is at a premium, finding places for students to meet or gather outside of the classroom is invaluable. These spaces can be created throughout the school such as the end of a corridor, at the intersection of corridors, or an area just outside the classroom.  Breakout spaces are used for individual study, one-on-one interaction, small groups, or for a few individuals to work on a team project. An example would be accelerated program students could use this space to work on a special project together.  For teachers, breakout spaces are great to interact informally with other teachers, administration, and school staff.

Pre-K, K-6 Schools

With elementary age students, seating areas include soft chairs, built in seating such as a bench, and creating a space on the floor. A bench needs to be height appropriate and can provide storage for books or supplies. Wall surfaces should be fun and attractive.  Features incorporate iPads, activity wall boards, magnetic, tack, and marker boards. This will provide space for student work to be displayed for all to see, creating a sense of pride and accomplishment for students of all ages.

When possible, it is beneficial to have natural sunlight in the space, as it improves student performance, and creates a healthy learning environment.  When children are exposed to outside views it helps them to be connected to their community in a safe and weather controlled environment.

break out space trees

break out space copyThe idea of a breakout space is to create an area that differs from the classroom setting. This is accomplished several ways. Define these areas with a variety of ceiling heights, lighting treatments, and floor finishes and incorporate bright colors. With these varied elements, a unique, flexible, creative, learning environment can be achieved.

Middle School/High School

For Middle and High School, the breakout spaces and seating needs to be more flexible as students in this age group have a growth spurt between freshman and senior years. Therefore, the learning spaces should offer several seating choices, from high-top desks for those who like to stand with their laptops, to flexible soft seating that is easy to slide and move, but too heavy to pick up.

Collaboritve Area - FinalTechnology is a must for these students and would include smart boards, a projector and screen.  This breakout space would accommodate a cluster of up to ten teens. Again, the idea is to provide an environment that is different than the rest of the educational spaces.  Change the circulation space to a multidisciplinary space where students can work individually, or collaborate in small groups. These spaces inspire students and offer flexible learning options. Students can sit, stand, or work at a table either solo with an iPad and headset, or work with others in a small group. Informal relaxed seating allows students to be more comfortable and offers different seating options.

The staff members or educators could be part of these smaller working groups with a few students, or to do project based learning. This is different than other circulation space. The furniture is durable, and maintainable. The environment needs to address sound, and offer a quieter space by using special acoustical treatments, so as not to disturb adjacent classrooms.

Learning Commons 2 - edit copyFor these spaces lighting should also be different than a typical classroom. A variety of lighting is needed such as task, and dimmable, and overall lighting needs to be flexible to accommodate numerous activities. The ceiling treatments help define these areas of flexible use. All materials used in these spaces must to be durable and high performance; furniture, fabrics, flooring, and wall treatments are needed for this common area to be successful.

In breakout spaces, the colors are more vivid and offer a more creative and stimulating environment. These colors promote activity and interaction. Here in these spaces we foster creativity, collaboration, and inspiration. The use of art murals, quotes, and goals of how to treat each other, as well as fun graphic images can encourage team spirit and school pride.



A successful educational environment offers opportunities for everyone to learn. Offering breakout space allows students to learn in a variety of ways, to work independently, one on one, or in a small group. The physical space should be flexible, comfortable, and colorful, and designed to inspire and support students for 21st century learning. With planning and thoughtful design, these breakout areas help create the ideal space for learning. ♦

Career Tech Education for All

The Next Step in the Evolution of CTE

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by Carl Franceschi, AIA, LEED, MCPPO | President, DRA

Career Technical Education (CTE) has evolved to become a valuable, robust, and flexible form of instruction that would be beneficial to all students, not just those enrolled in technical or vocational schools.

This is the next step in the evolution of CTE.

CTE education has become more popular to the general student population. Unlike previous generations, many current graduates of career tech high schools are going on to attend college, and study subjects such as engineering, biotech, and information technology. This trend should be encouraged.

The positive aspect of this evolution for the entire population is that it aligns with many relevant trends in 21st century education. Many of the goals identified in current education plans for traditional academic high schools are already being implemented in Career Technical Schools:

21st Century Skills
Educators and employers recognize that students need to acquire specific skills to succeed in the 21st century: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. Because of the way their curriculum is designed, CTE schools have already responded to these new needs. Through their advisory committees, CTE curriculum has paralleled the economy’s shift from manufacturing to service to sharing. Along with this evolution, they have introduced these 21st century skills into day-to-day coursework. Students often work in teams to collaborate on projects; are challenged to create solutions to real world problems, communicate their results to the class, and critically research precedents. CTE graduation requirements often include innovation or entrepreneurship courses.

Project-based Learning
It has long been recognized that students have multiple intelligences. Some learn better with lecture style learning, some prefer reading for themselves, or watching a video. Many learn best by actually doing- designing and physically creating things with their own hands. This is the basis for project-based learning that is at the core of Career Tech Education. For example, for some students in a purely academic setting studying calculus might be a vague abstract concept. But in a career tech school setting, a student plotting the motion of a robotic arm retains a great deal more of the concepts.  This type of learning makes the subject relevant and more real world.

SHOP image CTEIntegrated Curriculum
Many schools encourage cross-curricular collaboration; CTE schools have been doing this years. As part of each career area, students spend time in both the traditional “shop”, as well as in an adjacent “Theory” classroom. This is where a carpentry student learns about geometry, an auto mechanic appreciates physics, or a health tech student understands biology.

Lifelong Learning
There is an emphasis on lifelong learning in school today, based on the recognition that future workers will need to adapt their skills over time to new, and currently unknown jobs. Students must learn how to learn. This skill is being encouraged in Career Tech education by exposing students to both current career needs and by sampling other fields through required “exploratory” programs.

CTE also partners with business and industry in a region to stay forward-looking. Business leaders serve on the school’s advisory committees to provide relevant input on curriculum. They also provide internship opportunities for students to get real world experience while still in high school. This partnership creates valuable community involvement for schools and richer experiences for students.

Block Scheduling
Many educational consultants recognize the value of longer class periods, or “block” scheduling that allows for more innovation such as project -based learning, in-depth science labs, and cross-curricular opportunities. For such experiences, 50 minutes periods just won’t do. CTE schools have extreme block scheduling- rather than a typical school schedule; CTE students have alternating weeks with an entire day devoted to their career area. This provides tremendous flexibility for the instructors to utilize a variety of teaching methodologies including activities, projects, and field trips.

Personalized Learning
Another important development in education has been the recognition of the value of personalized learning. Not only does this recognition allow a student to flourish by utilizing their predominant learning style, it also strengthens the student-teacher relationship. This provides each student with an adult role model who knows that individual and takes an interest in her development. CTE education has developed this model for some time now- with both low teacher student ratios (often 1 to 12) and longer contact time (entire weeks together).

So how could the richness of CTE be applied to traditional academic high schools?

1) More Comprehensive High Schools These are schools that offer both general academic courses and career tech education. There would need to be scheduling flexibility to operate on two different schedules under one roof, but having the CTE resources available opens opportunities for all students to experience at least some career technical education. It also provides traditional academic courses with more cross-curricular opportunities.

2) Regional Career Tech Centers  For those who can’t afford to have certain CTE programs within their district, or that don’t have enough students to justify a CTE program, a regional career tech center may be the most appropriate solution.  Such schools are shared resources, usually funded by the state or county. Students are typically bussed there from their home high school for half-day CTE courses. A secondary use of such facilities could be to support Community College degree programs and adult job-training.

3) Offer a General Integrated Curriculum with long-block scheduling, cross-discipline curriculum, and project based learning.  Without the typical CTE shop spaces, such a school would need to add (or reconfigure) spaces for such activities as collaboration/ break- out areas, project rooms, maker spaces, and learning commons. This would bring the CTE approach to the traditional academic population by providing students with more and different ways to learn.

Four recommendations to make this happen:

1) At the Local Level –  School systems could make the commitment to re-examine their educational methodologies to encourage CTE into their curriculum.  Exposure to some CTE courses could be a requirement for graduation.

2) At the State Level – the State is best positioned to identify the local and regional economics as to what skills and career education is needed. In Massachusetts, the MSBA could fund more CTE projects, and support more comprehensive high schools.  The State Department of Education could investigate the feasibility of regional CTE centers.

3) At the Federal Level – Currently the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act funds the purchase of vocational equipment exclusively for CTE schools. This funding could be more widespread to support traditional academic high schools as well if they demonstrate that they integrated CTE into their curriculum.

4) At the Private Level, Independent schools could encourage the notion of college credit for certain CTE type high school courses. This would make the school more affordable and improve the perception of career education in general.

Career Technical Education continues to evolve. It now provides programs and pedagogies that complement and enhance academic preparation for all. With continued focus and emphasis, CTE can be the model for true 21st education.

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See Carl’s other CTE article, The Evolution of Career and Technical Education.

Repurposing Educational Facilities for 21st Century Learning

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by James A. Barrett, AIA, LEED, REFP

Every day in America, 59 million of us go to school.  Whether as students, teachers, or educational employees, each day we spend time in the nation’s 120,000 school buildings.  Of these buildings, nearly 75% were built before 1970.  This aging infrastructure often poses physical, operational, and educational challenges to our nation’s students and educators. Our ability to revitalize our aging school infrastructure positions our educational environments to successfully address the needs of 21st century learning.

Understanding the construction technologies and methods of decades past informs us as we reconsider, repurpose, and reshape these facilities for future use. Maybe not surprisingly, the same qualities and characteristics that have made these school buildings durable and long-lasting, also make modifying them challenging for today’s educational designer. The most daunting challenges are primarily due to changes in construction techniques, in technological requirements, and in educational delivery. Each of these challenges must be addressed to allow existing school facilities to be reused and repurposed to successfully meet 21st century educational needs.

Robust construction techniques of the past can prove to be a significant hurdle in delivering rehabilitated educational facilities that meet today’s environmental expectations.  Masonry wall construction, limited ceiling plenums, and minimal floor to floor heights, are a few examples of challenges that make the incorporation of modern-day heating, cooling, technology, and electrical systems difficult. One may then ask:
Why recycle our facilities?

In the US alone, an estimated 251 million tons of consumer solid waste is generated
annually.  Less than a third is recycled or composted.  As much as 40% of this waste comes from the construction industry, with billions of tons of demolished facilities piling up in our landfills worldwide. Facility re-purposing, instead of new construction, offers a way to lessen this environmental impact.

Expectations are high.  Building users demand that recycled facilities work as comfortably, and efficiently as their new construction counterparts. As an example, thermal comfort must be delivered in the educational environment, built new or not. Finding ways to deliver state-of-the-art heating and cooling can be challenging within the physical constraints of an existing structure. For example, the HVAC system approach can greatly impact the ability of a that system to fit within an older building construction. Today’s Variable Refrigerant Volume (VRV) systems require far less dimensional space as compared to forced air alternatives, and often serve as a good choice for this type of rehabilitation. VRVs also afford the possibility of transferring cooled refrigerant to an overheated part of a building while simultaneously transferring warmed refrigerant back to the cooler side of the building.  This example is one of many ways to meet today’s expectations of year-round comfort while working within the tight constraints of yesterday’s minimally-sized building envelopes.  By applying modern technologies, we can reuse old envelopes, avoid unnecessary demolition, and save the expense of new construction, while still supporting education.

Delivering HVAC, electrical, and technology in ways capable of meeting 21st century educational environment expectations is a base-line requirement in determining the success of a facility reuse.  Similarly, today’s educational needs are very different from those at the time when these buildings were constructed. Spaces supporting project-based learning, collaborative learning, and a variety of learning styles are what our school facilities need today. Finding creative ways to introduce openness and flexibility are key to the success of a repurposed educational environment.

Bristol LEARNING IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT v3“Learning is not a spectator sport.” This quote from D. Blocher becomes increasingly relevant as we embrace today’s educational setting. Considering Blocher’s position while revitalizing our environments, informs us that our creativity has a significant impact on developing places for education that are supportive of learning in the many forms that it takes. Our ability to re-purpose facilities to meet these educational needs allows us to save the embedded energy of existing buildings, and breathe new life into these facilities as they are reset to meet the needs of 21st century learning.



IES National Center for Education Statistics publication, “Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 2012 –13”

National Center for Educational Statistics Website

Changes in Libraries

Library Self Check Outby Ken Best, AIA, ALA

As library designers we have seen libraries change and evolve.  Today’s modern library is a different experience than the clichéd silent building of yesteryear.  Let’s explore some of the more significant changes.

Entering an older library, we are used to seeing a large, high, circulation desk with staff, heads down working away. Not a particularly welcoming situation. In contrast the modern library has no circulation desk but instead small, mobile desks with a very different function.  Materials no longer must go to a desk for check-in or check-out but, instead are handled through automation; automatic systems to check in materials and sort them into any number of categories for re-shelving by staff; computerized self-check systems allow the patrons to check out materials, reserve books, and to see what the library has to offer.  These two items greatly reduce the administrative tasks that formally consumed much of their time.

Without the demand of tending to circulation needs, staff can now spend more time with patrons.  A person may arrive at the library looking for a specific service and in the course of conversation, staff may mention other services or resources and hear the patron reply, “I didn’t know that was available.” One measure of the success of a library is based on the number of questions they are asked and the inverse for the number of times they need to say “no” when asked for asked for a particular service.

With the barrier of the old-style circulation desks gone, staff have more freedom to connect with patrons and to find out how they can help. Librarians are also learning more about the towns in which they work, visiting the town’s various departments to find out more about local issues, and by checking with schools to find out what is new for them. In this way, librarians are better equipped to converse with patrons, and in doing so, transition to what the library offers and how better they can serve the patrons.

The same hands-on approach also applies to the information desks. Reference staff are mobile and seek out patrons who may need help instead of waiting for a patron to come to them.

Makerspaces are prominent in libraries and provide a place to gather, use resources and equipment and learn.  Originally designed around 3D printers many libraries have been exploring other hands-on programs. These may include art classes, sewing, knitting groups, and electronics, and just about anything that one can imagine.  Although the line is often drawn with hazardous tasks that require special supervision such as woodworking.

A library’s offerings have also changed. One library may have a seed swap to take home and plant while another has cake pans available to borrow.  Although the predominant collections are still books; music, DVD’s, books on CD or for your reader, manga, comics, magazines, and newspapers are all available at libraries. For the youth, expect to see a computer gaming area with a large TV, sound system and space for others to watch. This is appropriate for the library because  games are another way for kids to learn and socialize.

Libraries are no longer quiet places where staff shush patrons, but there is still need for quiet areas.  Small study rooms are provided for group projects, small meetings, tutoring or study sessions.  These rooms are usually granted on a first come, first served basis, but can also be reserved.

Wakelin Community Room copyAnother important feature is the Program Room. These multi-purpose spaces bring together the resources of the library and the interests and activities of the community. They tend to be large, with seating for 80 to 200 people often with folding partitions to further divide the space. Like other library spaces, flexibility is key and having flat floors allow the greatest number of program uses; art shows, lectures, concerts, and movies, to name a few. Oftentimes these are the largest spaces available to the communities they serve.

The modern library is more welcoming and more user-friendly building than in the past. We can be sure that changes will continue as technology and the needs of the public continue to shift.  We can also be sure that libraries will continue to provide access to knowledge in all its forms. ♦