Can rapid prototyping help us find new ways for design to support learning?

Research Project Name

A High-Performance Place for Learning

What We Did

We investigated opportunities for education environments to better match with today’s learning models, specifically as those models shift toward personalization to support a diversity of learning styles. We worked with the Silicon Schools Fund, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, to partner with schools driving innovation in learning. After a preliminary review of existing research, we conducted site visits and interviews with key leaders at our partner schools to identify specific gaps where the design of the physical space was not meeting the learning needs and styles of the students.

In the next phase of our research, we prototyped furniture and fixture solutions designed to address identified needs related to a more personalized education model. Over the course of five weeks, we partnered with one school to develop multiple prototypes, test them with focus groups of students and teachers, and gather feedback to update and improve the designs for retesting. The findings helped us identify the design elements that best responded to the needs of today’s students and facilitated the activities and behaviors necessary for high-performance learning.

The Context

The manner in which we design, procure, and implement most learning environments today is a holdover of an industrial model. The focus remains, too often, on universal furniture provisions and self-contained classrooms designed on a square-foot-per-student allocation metric. This process does not reflect the diverse spectrum of activities and behaviors our schools need to support today.

The most progressive schools are moving beyond a one-size-fits-all learning model to become experts in the business of learning personalization. There is a significant opportunity for design to help learning environments keep pace with these unprecedented changes in education. Spaces that allow students to easily shift between different modes of learning, and that employ new strategies for zoning and allocating space, are key.

Experimentation with new design forms and solutions is necessary to meet this opportunity. Rapid prototyping processes in particular, which have shown success in other industries, are an opportunity to improve alignment between environment and pedagogy, with a focus on better supporting self-directed learners.

The Results

Many of today’s learning environments are disconnected from the needs of students, educators, and schools. From our interviews with our partners, it became clear that schools are challenged to respond to the rapidly evolving learning landscape. All too often, even schools that attempt to design environments that enable student choice and flexibility are falling short of meeting student need.

We identified support for mode-shifting, focusing, and better definition of spatial zoning as primary needs. To gather insights quickly, we took a rapid prototyping approach. This enabled us to start small and iterate through multiple ideas. By employing this approach in active learning environments, and eliciting direct feedback, we quickly identified several approaches to meet the new demands of today’s schools.

What This Means

Design in the round. Designing for students to position themselves in a circular formation encourages interaction and allows them to quickly find a spot.

Make spaces inviting. Providing fun, comfortable spaces is very attractive to students and motivates them to move quickly into an activity.

Create standing settings. Places designed for standing facilitate quick changes between activities and optimize ergonomics.

Integrate fluid technology. Seamless technology helps students shift toward and between collaborative activities easily, particularly when sharing of digital information is required.

Find the sweet spot. In education, too much or too little enclosure lacks effectiveness. Aim for somewhere in-between.

Cover from the front, or from behind. To get into the zone, students need to shield themselves from distraction.

Provide a haven for more than one. Sheltered space has the power to enable two students to focus in the space at the same time.

Rethink the wall. A central element can define a zone even more effectively than a perimeter boundary, such as a wall. When walls are helpful, lower height can provide a boundary while allowing for visual connection.

Consider usability Elements that move can also be disruptive. Special attention needs to be paid to the user’s interaction, as well as weight and noise from movement.

Facilitate mobility. Temporary elements are very effective for defining just the right zone when and where it is needed. These can signal a certain type of activity or behavior.

What’s Next?

Our next step is to develop a framework for measuring the performance of educational spaces that goes beyond a square-foot-per-student metric and embraces the reality of new learning environments. We also continue to explore possibilities to develop our prototype solutions into new products for forward-thinking education environments.

Learn More


Art Gensler, Kevin Rosenstein, Gervais Tompkin, Erin Cubbison, Evan Dobelle, Lewis Knight, Ashley Marsh, Clark Sept, Emily Shields, John Glover (Alpha Public Schools), Brian Greenberg (Silicon Schools Fund), Diane Tavenner (Summit Public Schools)

Year Completed