New Designs for the Comprehensive High School

by David Week on 08 December 2010


The paper below completely transformed my understanding of education. Like architecture, education is one of those professions that seems anchored by the “weight of history.” The paper describes a Federally-funded US re-design of the high school, which attempts to remove that weight, and shift the high school from the 19th C. to the 21st.

Let me count the ways in which it informed me:

  • It provides a specific example of a general phenomenon: how institutions and built form can lag decades, even centuries, behind cultural and social transformation.
  • It taught me that education is not a “known good”, as we often assume it to be. It is a form of social production — the production of human beings. And whether education is good or bad depends very much on what it produces. I know countries in which the wrong form of education has produced crime and chaos, as children are prepared for jobs and roles that don’t exist.
  • It sets out an almost perfect paradigm for the design process:
    • we start with the stakeholders
    • from them, we elicit their picture of the present and the future: a picture of a form of human life
    • from this picture, we start to crystallise the human relations and experiences that support that form of life
    • and only then do we define the characteristics that a built form must have, in order to support those relations and experiences.

That paradigm is not unique or new, but its execution here is brilliant.

(I’m currently seeking permission from the authors for this republication.)

New Designs for the Comprehensive High School: From Concept to Practice

George H. Copa and Bruce A. Jilk


This paper is presented in two parts, each developed by one of the above authors. The first part describes the design process used to create the learning specifications for New Designs for the Comprehensive High School and introduces the learning specifications themselves. More depth of description of the learning specifications and their rational can be gained form the reports noted in the bibliography at the end of the paper.

The second part of the paper will deal with translating the learning specifications into the design of a supportive learning environment. The features of the learning environment, including learning technology, begin to suggest in very concrete ways the recommended changes needed for effective 21st century high schools.

The Design Process and Learning Specifications

Prepared by George H. Copa

This research and development began in January, 1991, and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education through the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley; the work was done in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota site of the Center. The initial development work was completed in December, 1992, with continued refinements made as New Designs for the Comprehensive High School is the focus of presentations, workshops, and technical assistance to schools which are implementing the design concepts. We have had an opportunity to present to a wide diversity of professional and lay groups. In the last twelve months, invited presentations have been made to the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Educational Facility Planners, School Business Officials International, the American Institute of Architects, the National School Board Association. We’ve made presentations to international audiences in Canada and Australia. We also have directed workshops for several schools systems and state education agencies. Schools drawing on the New Designs concepts are now under construction in Newport News, Virginia; Janesville, Wisconsin; Chaska and Apple Valley/Rosemont/Egan, Minnesota; Kennewick and Bellingham, Washington; West Des Moines, Iowa, and also the Washington DC public schools.

The Design Process

When this work was started, a National Design Group was brought together to guide the effort. To give them some freedom in their thinking, we introduce what was called a ‘design assumption’ as an orientation. The assumption was a quote from a book On Becoming a Teacher by Jonathan Kozal:

“Public schools did not exist forever, they did not come out of the forehead of a Greek or Roman God, they were contrived by ordinary men and women and for just this reason they can be rebuilt or reconceived, dismantled, or replaced not by another set of Gods by plain men and women. You and I leave school as it is, can change it slightly or turn it inside out and upside down.”

This statement gives permission to think about high schools very differently.

We have moved from the agricultural age, to the industrial age, and now to the information age. Yet, you can walk into a high school today, almost any place in the United States, and won’t be surprised in terms of the way the place is built, the way it is organized and structured, and the way that it operates. In a sense, we are trying to give birth to major reforms in education and are constrained by an outdated operating system and building design.

When we started this work and brought our Design Group together for the first time, the first question they asked us was: “What is the problem you are trying to fix, as you think about new designs for the high school?” We identified three problem areas. The mismatch of school and life, inequity in educational opportunity, and the increasing demand for schools effectiveness.

First, concerning the mismatch of school and life, those who have studied the contrast of life inside of school and life outside note that: – in school we work individually and outside we work in small groups and teams; – inside we work with well defined problems, outside we work with problems where we have to decide what the problem is, and it is usually messy and ill-defined; – inside school we work with paper and pencil, outside of school we work with all kinds of tools and equipment; – inside of school we consult the textbook for the answer to problems, outside of school, while we might turn to a book for answers.

Young people have noticed this contrast between life in school and life outside. And, they are beginning to wonder about the meaningfulness of school and whether or not they should put their motivations into this place. In this context, too large a group of young people have dropped out of high schools in the United States. Another group is staying in, but they are “putting in their time” for mainly the social reasons.

The second problem area that we needed to address in New Designs is inequity in educational opportunity. In most high schools in the United States, you can find inequity in educational opportunity among students. By operating schools in ways that allow this inequity to exist, we are losing the talents and full potential of a whole lot of young people to our communities. And, if you look where our investments are now going, education is losing funding increases to prisons and crime prevention, to often for the same students for which the school held low expectations and provided weak educational opportunities. If we are going to redesign high schools for the 21st century, we have to deal in a very substantive way with the inequity of educational opportunity we find in each school.

The third problem area addressed was the need to improve school effectiveness without increasing costs. The expectations of the public for school performance are going up, and resources are constant at best. What do you do in a situation like that? One solution is to consider doing things in very different ways.

Our thinking is that designing high schools for the 21st century is an educative process. We can not simply look at the last new high schools that were built in the area and hope to get by with minor modifications. We must go through a serious educative process to figure out new designs. The resources for the design process will include a review of the latest educational research and cutting edge professional practice in schools throughout the world. The design process must be a learning process where the designer, the community, and the school staff work together and learn, if you will, to uncover and discover new ways to design the high school learning experience and environment. In our design process we carefully reviewed the many government sponsored and commissioned reports suggesting needed changes to improve high schools in the United States. The process also involved group interviews with students, teachers, and school administrators, each as separate groups. The interviews that were conducted as part of New Designs were held in cities including Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In each place we convened a small group of students, 7 or 8 or 9, and talked to them about learning and about the school environment and about the staffing and the relationships that would best support them in the learning process. We talked through with them what it was like when learning was really occurring, when they could feel it, when they could see it, how was it organized, what resources were there, what was the environment like and so forth. Students often commented on this experience as being the first time anybody had seriously talked with them about school design. If we want students’ motivation, their energy in the school, we are going to have to figure out their needs and wants and how to be more responsive. Conversations with students is one of the ways to get new and relevant ideas for school designs.

In each of the cities noted above, we held similar meetings with teachers and with school administrators. We also composed a National Design Group made up of stakeholders in the high school that included a chief state school officer, researchers, school administrators, counsellors, academic and vocational teachers, and business and labour representatives. All of the above were the ingredients in the design process for New Designs for the Comprehensive High School.

In addition, we looked historically in the United States from the time high schools began to review the major changes, the reform initiatives, and what could be learned from these experiences so that we did not reinvent the past. We wanted to make sure that if we did recommend some of concepts and idea from the past, we were building on strengths and avoiding limitations. We also noted that the performance of high schools in the United States are no longer being compared with the schools in the next-door community. They are being compared internationally. With this in mind, we examined high school change initiatives in six other countries: Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Great Britain. What are the changes they are making? Why these changes? What problems are they encountering in their high schools? What could we learn from each country about designing future- oriented high schools in the United States?

The Design Vision

A very brief presentation is made of the key points in the vision that we had for the learning experience and school design in New Designs for the Comprehensive High School.

The first key point is that we wanted the design to represent the leading edge of a wedge of a new breed of schools in a way that would create some new ‘space’ in which to think about the operation of high schools. Perhaps high schools in the United States are as good as they can be in the current way that the schools are designed and operated. There is a real need to think about design and operation in some very different ways if we are to improve effectiveness without increasing costs. The Carnegie unit as a framework for learning time, the department structure for organising staff, and the nine month school year all represent confinements on thinking about high school operation and supporting designs.

Second, we wanted to break through some of the traditional educational practices where they were standing in the way of progress to school effectiveness and efficiency. Some of these practices have already been noted above. We have new high schools opening in the United States today that have academic and vocational wings. At the same time, we are spending millions of dollars to integrate the curriculum knowing that the split of academic and vocational forces young people to make choices between these two areas when they need both for a bright future. We’re opening schools in the United States today where if you are not a student or a teacher, counsellor, or administrator, there is no place for you to comfortably be in the school. At the same time we are introducing major new initiatives that call for closer collaboration and partnership with the community as being essential to improving school effectiveness. These are some of the current educational practices from which we need to break.

Third, more and more schools and states across the country are promising the idea of a common set of learner outcomes for all graduates. Conversations with school administrators and board members in these schools and states suggest they are getting very nervous about what it is going to take to deliver on the promise of a common set of learner outcomes for all students. Think about it. The guarantee of a common set of outcomes for all students. That’s not what we have in high schools across the United States today. My projection is that we can not deliver on this promise the way high schools are currently organized and operated. Schools that are going to deliver on the promise of a common set of outcomes for all students will very likely have to look different than the schools we have today. For example, these schools will need to believe that a student can learn the same thing in a variety of subject matter areas or in a variety of settings. If the student needs to learn problem solving, the school will recognize that it could be learned in an art class or a business class or a science class. None of these subject matter areas has the ‘corner of the market’ on teaching problem solving.

Fourth, the design vision is that learner outcomes are closely related to the challenges and opportunities in work, family, and community life. So, rather than starting with a curriculum that is modelled on the university or based on the latest textbooks, the challenges is to begin to sort out what are the important challenges and opportunities that young people are going to face, they either are facing now or will in the future in work, family, and community settings, and then began to work backwards and see what curriculum makes sense. That is a new way to approach curriculum design and not the typical way we go about planning the high school learning process. And, it would take some courage; but, if we want to reconnect the school and life for young people, we will have to take this approach seriously.

Fifth, the new high school needs to operate as a learning community. When we talked with folks in high schools across the United States, one of the major concerns is they wanted the school to have a greater sense of caring, of common and high expectations, of attachment and ownership for their high school. Those are characteristics that we can’t command anybody, whether youth or adult, to give us. We can not make anyone do them; they are attributes given when there is a feeling of being trusted and cared for and so forth. And one of the places where this happens is where there is a strong sense of community. So we decided that somehow the sense of community must be strengthened in new school designs.

Sixth, we want a high school where there is a close alignment among the learner outcomes, leaning process, learning organization, and the learning environment. The importance of the idea of alignment or coherence within the school comes from the work on total quality management and continuous quality improvement as applied in the private sector and increasingly in the public sector. The assumption is that if we want quality and effectiveness and efficiency, internal alignment and coherence of operation is needed. Aims and processes have to fit together. Many high schools, particularly large high schools, do not fit this pattern. Too often there are many things going on and they are going in several different directions; they do not form a consistent and coherent pattern. We are recommending a design process that will result in much more alignment and coherence in the operation of high schools, resulting in increased quality and efficiency.

Seventh, the attention in a New Designs school is on learning (in contrast to teaching). Much of the current high school environments seems to be first a teaching environments. It is largely classrooms, set up for an adult with twenty to thirty young people; the teacher stays in the room and young people move around on a bell system. What would happen if you begin to reverse these roles and make the learners the center of attention.

Eight, we want the school to have a special character that gives focus, coherence, and spirit to learning. This concept draws on the school effectiveness literature and from the experience of private schools where it is suggested that one of the things that contributes to quality and high performance is a sense of specialness. And, everybody in the school knows what this specialness is from the janitor to the students, teachers, administrators, the school board. It is a uniqueness that permeates all that goes on at the school. In the typical comprehensive high schools across the United States, it is very difficult to detect a specialness from one school to the next. About the only thing that distinguishes one school from the other is the name of their athletic team. We are suggesting the need to begin to re-thinking community by community what the specialness of their high school should be.

The last point in envisioning a new design for high schools was that we wanted a school that didn’t cost any more to build or operate than an existing school. Given the resource constraints for education, we tried to keep the cost challenge before us all during the design process.

In summary, the design process was developed in a way to assist us to move beyond the current barriers that stand in the way of school reforms and initiatives, and that represented a renaissance with respect to thinking about teaching and learning. We took an architectural perspective calling for being careful to make sure that we got at the learning specifications for the school before we thought about its physical environment. We used a ‘design down’ process to give the alignment and coherence we wanted and that would force us to ask the most important design questions first. The design incorporated a synthesis of research and best practice. It had a ‘stem to stern’ orientation which moved beyond studies of single aspects of the high school such as curriculum, organization, decision making, or technology, and put these all together in one system so that one aspect could be aligned with another. And, last we wanted to model the process of involvement of students, teachers, administrators and community in the design process. This dimension of the design process is crucial because the resulting high schools would likely operate and look very different from the high schools of today. Without solid involvement it would be difficult to get the political support needed to implement new design models.

The Learning Specifications

The design down process used in New Designs for the Comprehensive High School is made up of a series of phases. It starts with the learning signature or figuring out what is to be special about a particular school. The next phase focuses on learner outcomes, or other words can be substituted for outcomes such as results, standards, aims, goals, or essential learning. But, somehow we need to come to grips with what is going to be the promise learning for the resources that the school is going to consume. Next, we turn to designing the learning process which involves the assessment, the curriculum, the instruction, that’s going to go on in the school to reach the learner outcomes. Then we get to the decisions about learning organization: how are we going to organize time, the curriculum, students, settings, technology, and decision making in the school to deliver on the learning process. The next focus in the design process is the learning partnerships with other schools, post secondary institutions, parents and family, business and industry, and the community. Then we get to the learning staff, and the staffing might look considerably different than the staffing we currently have in schools. And then the learning environment: what kind of environment physically and technologically will support the learning process and organization decided in previous phases. Last, we come to dealing with the learning cost. That is the process we used over a two-year period to develop New Designs for the Comprehensive High School and it is the same process we now we use with schools implementing the New Designs concepts and specifications.

In terms of signature, only a few aspects are covered here. We expect the leaning signature to give focus and coherence for the school and communicate in a very powerful way what the school is about. We developed a signature for New Designs, but the signature is something schools need to do each on their own. Our signature encompasses three major themes: learning community, curricular integration, and transformation.

The idea of learner outcomes is as keystone holding the process and environment together in a very visible way. We noted that the learner outcomes ought to focus on the customer’s of the school and they all need to be involved in developing the statement of learner outcomes. The outcomes should involve reaching for the kinds of goals and objectives in terms of education that are perhaps beyond what we can measure and represent the interests of all students. The outcome statements we adopted were from Minnesota and included: thinks purposely, directs their own learning, communicates effectively, works productively with others, and acts responsibly as a citizen. These outcomes represent a major change in paradigm with respect to thinking about the promises of education. One doesn’t see seat time in English, social studies and so forth. Rather the outcomes address the competencies that young people are going to need if they’re going to tackle the problems and issues of 21st century life in a successful way. And it represents a real opportunity to begin to think through in a serious way what school should be about, how it’s organized, and what one would learn there.

With regard to the learning process, we suggested a need to emphasise the integration of curriculum because the problems of life do not come to one as mathematics problems or social studies problems or English problems, but they combine multiple subject matter areas. The emphasis in assessment is on it use to improve learning. And, we want the learning process to be relevant to real life, active, and experiential.

We were pressed very hard to describe in detail the curriculum in a New Designs school. However, we suggest that before getting to curriculum details, one would first begin by asking about what learning products could students produce in school that would give evidence that students had reached or were making progress on reaching the learner outcomes. These could be physical products or service products. Then begin to ask a second question concerning the learning activities or projects the students would need to engage in order to produce the products. And, only then get to the question of integration of high level academic and modern vocational education in forming the curriculum. This is a different way to begin to think about curriculum and depends on the students having roles in school as workers and producers in contrast to mere recipients of information which is too often the case in schools today.

We also wanted a learning process that represented multiple ways for students to learn the same thing. We wanted an organization in terms of time and setting that would create a very small school experience because that would create a stronger sense of learning community. The learning organization also was to include strategies where the settings are expanded to other schools and into the community.

Learning technology was to be used by students to demonstrate learning and take on adult roles. We thought the cutting edge on technology was around notions such as student as producer and having technology enable young people to be producers as opposed to receivers of learning. Technology would provide the opportunity for students to be managers of their own learning as opposed to teacher doing all of the managing. Other contributions of learning technology included equaliser of learning opportunity, linker to a wider community, and students as teacher.

There are many other learning specifications that make up New Designs for the Comprehensive High School. They are described in the publications listed at the end of this paper. In addition to more details about the dimensions of the high school noted above, the additional specifications address the areas of decision making, partnerships, staffing and staff development, and learning costs as relates to New Designs. One can see these specifications played out in another way as we turn to describing the learning experiences and supporting environment of the New Designs High School in the next section of this paper.

Designing the Learning Experience and Supporting Environment

Prepared by Bruce A. Jilk

This part of the presentation will focus on the learning environment. The presentation concludes with a video that illustrates these ideas actually occurring. It’s a virtual reality video of a school that’s under construction, it has no classrooms, it’s not being built by the school district but rather it’s being built by a city, and the teachers will include the Zoo scientists located at the site where the school is being built. It’s in a district that has over 20,000 students and typically builds 2000 student high schools, however this school is for four hundred students. That’s much smaller. And it breaks a lot of other paradigms as well. I will refer to this project as the Zoo school.

This presentation is organized into three parts:

  1. a short history of school buildings in the USA;
  2. the concept of this learning environment;
  3. the idea of designing a learning experience.

A Short History of Schools in the USA

The first schools were one room schools. In the one room school house there were two parts:

  1. there was the room and
  2. what went on inside the room.

Over time we kept the room and we replicated it but we threw out what went on inside. I will come back to this ‘split’ towards the end of my presentation. For now I will suggest that this was a fundamental error.

The Concept of the Learning Environment

The charge that I got from George Copa and the Design Group was not to design a school to accommodate 1,600 kids and then figure out how many classroom need and how many gyms etc., but rather the charge was this. Create an environment that supports outcome focused learning, (results based, or essential student learnings, as they call it in Washington), the idea that all students can learn, and curricular integration, which has a big impact on the design. Also the environment should support the idea of partnerships, learning to learn, teamwork, assessment to improve learning, learning technology everywhere, decentralised authority, and the sense of a learning community. You’re going to see these phrases come up on some graphics that show what life would be like in this type of environment. This completes the circle of the design down process.

First I will give you a concept of how this design was organized. A traditional school has the basic building block of classrooms. Think of that as a teaching environment. In this design we will, however, create a learning environment. Our basic building block is the individual. They are organized into groups of five. Next, twenty of these learning groups comprise the Family of 100 students. This is followed by the Neighbourhood which is made up of four families or 400 students. These group sizes of five students, a hundred students, and four hundred students are based on research. We did illustrate this design as a sixteen hundred students school. There is no research that supports that size, but it is very typical of schools in our communities.

To repeat, we started with a group of five which became the building block of a family of a hundred which in turn became the building block of a neighbourhood of four families for a total of four hundred students. Now that is a stand alone school and that is what the Zoo school in the video is: a high school of four hundred students. Beyond that we did show how this would work in a larger setting, sixteen hundred students and then also most importantly make the connection between the school and the greater community.

Each of these basic spaces in the learning environment has a center, support space and a level of technology. The hierarchy of technology follows that of the students. Every student would have their own personal telecommunication computers. That is a portable computer with a video device on it so students can interact both audibly and visibly. In the Zoo school they are indeed planning to implement this idea. As we get to the family level we have more sophisticated technology: Graphics, CAD, and multimedia, which you’ll see that in one of the graphic vignettes. Next, at the neighbourhood, we will introduce a new type of space in schools that we call studios and the technology found there. At the student community level is a place for new technology. Ten to fifteen years ago when computers first became known to educators we created a special place for them and called it a computer room. Now the idea is for every student to have a computer. But there still is cutting edge technology. And you need a place for that and today we believe that the virtual reality technology. Ten years from now there will be something else and we will still need a place for it. Last of all the experiences that the students have in the real world will include, of course, real world technology.

Just to illustrate this learning environment concept graphically, we start with our students at their individual work stations and next we see a member of a group of five and then the family of a hundred and the four neighborhoods of four hundred.

Next this is developed into architectural dimensions. First is the student with four other students, the table as the center, and each student has a personal workstation. It includes a computer, a file drawer and a place for photos and other personal items. We’ve gone through a couple of design phases on the workstation. We actually did prototype of this in preparation for the Zoo school. The idea is for the workstations to be modular and the students have the freedom to rearrange them but yet there would be some uniformity.

In the Family the students and their individual work stations are in groups, wrapped around the production/resource center. This is the center of the family and will be described later. There is also a place that we call the lab which is multi-purpose. Next is a divisible lecture room. Lecture is still a viable part of teaching, it’s just not the only way (which is what a school made up of classrooms implies). There is a seminar space and a place for teachers at the family level.

The neighbourhood is a stand alone school. We assumed a two story setting so we start with a mirror image of the family space on the ground level and then repeat this on the second floor.

If you are going to build the school for sixteen hundred students, how would this all work? We took a ‘kit of parts’ approach in designing two new high school for Newport News, Virginia. The two schools have equity because they are both made up of the same parts. But at the same time you can have individual identity because the parts are rearranged differently and they can also adjust to the site configurations. So we take a neighbourhood of four hundred students and add a second, third and fourth neighbourhood. To that to that we need to add an activity block. An activity block is where large group performance and athletic activities occur. Then this is all wrapped around what we call a forum, the center of the community.

Last of all we took a look at how all this would fit into the larger community. This connection will be explained shortly.

Designing the Learning Experience

I have just described the learning environment concept. Now I will share with you a process for how to go about making these design decisions. We use a process which has been tested with numerous school planning committees around the USA. This has lead to school designs that really are rather different from what is traditionally done. If you’ve ever been involved in a building project, this is really quite a different process. It is a process I hope you will take with you to help you make decisions on your own projects. We call it Designing the Learning Experience. Instead of designing the building or an object in space, design the learning experience. The traditional design process allows you to get caught up into too many things that really don’t contribute to learning. Design the learning experiences you want your students to have and the bricks and mortar will fall in place.

I’m going to take you through the design of a learning experience. First I will contrast that to a traditional school which we call cells and bells model. The example school is one that we’ve converted to a New Designs type of school. It can happen in existing buildings as well! But the typical image that you have in a school like that is not unlike this image of students seating in rows and aisles. I have gone through many high schools, walking up and down the school corridors and this is what I see, by far, most of the time. There are a few variations but this is pretty typical. What I will share with you now is some more graphic vignettes that I want you to think of as additional opportunities for students other than this setting of rows and aisles.

To do this we’ve created a hypothetical project. The list you see here is the learning events, as we call it, that are appropriate to this project. Different projects would have different events. The list goes from the idea or ideation to sharing, research, design, prototype, feedback, collecting parts, assembling, marketing and distributing. This is based around a physical product, but it could also be an intellectual or a social product. We’ve worked with several people who have produced these types of projects. Next these learning events are going to take place in a learning setting and in this example this is what I just described to you. The next step is to make that connection between the two: the learning events and the learning setting.

I think that point is really important so I’m going to illustrate it a second way. Using the word pathways reinforces the ‘connectivity’ of this learning process. Think of a matrix with the learning events in the vertical column and the learning settings going across horizontally. Notice that a learning setting is not necessarily space. Included are technologies and people. In this particular hypothetical project the dots show those learning events taking place in the various learning settings. But what really moves this whole concept a step forward is the fact that these events/settings are connected and this is one of the strong points of designing the learning experience. It is something that gives coherence and meaning to the student’s experiences in their school. This is in contrast to the aimlessness that is often associated with the departmentalised high school.

Now we’re going to take you through that sequence of this hypothetical project. The following graphic images should be thought of as additional experiences offered the student above and beyond the photo of students sitting in rows and aisles. First the ideation. The idea starts at the individual work station which is shown in three-dimensions. Our first graphic vignette shows our student coming up with an idea in which he has ownership. This image is addressing the charge that all students can learn because we’re starting with the individual student.

The project’s next step is the next learning event of teamwork and the production resource center setting focuses in on that. There are places here for two- dimensional, three-dimensional displays or video display. These students don’t do everything every day, all day, all year with the same group of students, but rather are a part of different groups for different projects, in different families or different neighborhoods. They will be in varied groups and settings. That is why there are the round tables for those other teams and activities. There is a place for producing items like posters and just plain work space such as the larger tables. A place for resource materials such as software would also be needed. Finally the rectangular tables are for the multi-media technology.

Our second vignette shows our students getting some other students interested in this project. This is where we get into the teamwork aspect of learning. These students all are going to have ownership of the project. This is not something that somebody else is going to spoon feed to them.

Next a word about staff. Their space (shaded) has a very similar setting to the students. Our vignette shows the staff planning together. That is an important part of making this kind of education work. But it also reflects the idea of decentralised authority. The staff here are empowered to make decisions about the use of space, time, equipment, and curricula.

Next the group tests the idea that they have with staff input. The teacher is coach-mentor and is folding the learner outcomes into this project. The objective is to help the students reach those outcomes. Basically the idea is that how the learner reaches the outcomes is not being pre-determined by some else but rather it is the responsibility of the learners with assistance from their teachers.

In the project research phase we see just one of the examples of the many places where technology would be. Shown here is the multi-media technology in the production/resource center.

There’s also the need to share data and direction and this next vignette illustrates that the student is involved in demonstration and display. Also illustrated is the idea that assessment is used to improve learning in this educational design. Assessment is not something that happens at the end. It happens in the middle and, in fact, as at the Zoo school it happens at the beginning. There the first thing they do is test the kids to see if they have the skills needed for the up coming thematic unit.

We are going to take a quick look at the neighbourhood. There are two spaces here I want to say a few words about. The first is the commons. Remember every level in this school has a heart to it, really a center. And in the neighbourhood it is the commons. This is the social heart as well as where dining will occur. Even where we have four of these together to create a 1600 student, dining is going to occur in each separate neighbourhood. A school for Bellingham Washington does indeed do this. We suggest that this ought to be more of an adult like setting. This is why the design has the suggestion of a cafe type of environment. Much more friendly than the institutional almost, prison like feeling in a lot of cafeterias. There the rectangular tables make you wonder where are the metal plates, metal cups, and striped uniforms! This is also a place where the whole student body can gather here for pep-fests, pep-rallies etc. That “action” is part of creating a sense community at the neighbourhood level.

Probably the most significant type of space that we are implementing in schools projects of all sorts is what we call a studio. There are four of them per neighbourhood, two on each floor, in the corners. There is no vocational wing to this building. The studio is where curricular integration happens more than anywhere else, although it happens everywhere. A key aspect of the studio concept is its flexibility. Every one of these studios has the same floor area, the same walls, the same doors, the same windows, the same power and network grid, the same utility walls, (that’s where water, plumbing, sewer, gas, etc. are), and the same ventilation manifold.

What goes on in a studio is dependent upon the curriculum and the equipment we put in that room, not upon the infrastructure. We created three examples to share with you. The first one is an engineering studio and the vignette shows the students working on their projects. By the way the hypothetical project is a computer and the students are assembling it here in the engineering studio.

We have also taken that same infrastructure, same bricks and motor, and created a communications studio. The image shows a totally different learning experience. Remember, we’re designing learning experiences. What you see in this image, even though it’s happening in the same sort of physical environment as the previous image, is a totally different learning experience. The third one is the environmental studio. And again everything is the same as far as the infrastructure is concerned. What is different is the curriculum and the equipment that is in that space and therefore the learning experience.

Next our project moves to the whole school level. The roofs are in exploded view here to emphasising the point that the design brings natural daylight into every occupied space in this building.

I want to focus on the center. The forum is the heart of the whole student community. Think of it in two ways. First of all in Roman times they had what they called the forum which was the center of their community and it was surrounded by communal resources. Such as the library that you see on the upper level. Such as governance that they called the Senate. Such as commerce or what we call the student store. That is what this space indeed is and it creates that feeling of a community for the whole school.

Another dimension to this space however is that it is a place for performance. In this type of education performance is extremely important so we want to provide for it in a way that would be readily accessible. In contrast the traditional auditorium is typically down the hall around the corner behind locked doors and dark. I’m not sure why it’s this way, but possibly somebody’s afraid it’s going to be used! We wanted to reverse that mentality. Here’s our vignette of our students sharing their project with other students in the forum and there by creating that sense of a learning community.

I mentioned communal resources around the perimeter of this forum. Today one example of that would be virtual reality technology. People say, “oh yeah, that’s neat but it’s expensive”. Well bars and taverns have it so I advise school superintendents and school board members do partnerships with the bars and taverns in their communities. If nothing else, at least they’ll get the attention of their parents.

Next we get to the whole global village level and I assume I don’t need to talk about Internet to you folks. But in the design of our school we did want to make a very real connection to the community that surrounds the school setting. Because part of the learning process draws on adjunct teachers such as business people, you have people coming to the school to teach and students going out to the real world to learn. We all know learning does not happen within the walls of the school. We tried to create a graceful and easy way for a physical connection to the greater community. The design also addresses the security issues attached to that type of activity when each neighbourhood has their own access point as well as the school as a whole.

This leads us into the idea that these designed learning experiences happen outside the walls of the school but still they are ‘designed’. This experience is not just one of flipping burgers. For example here is our communications student in a TV studio, the environmental student in a greenhouse and our engineering student in a post secondary laboratory. When you’re in a rural setting those resources aren’t available to you. Such as this one neighbourhood school with a smaller forum and a smaller activity block. You then create enterprises and of course a lot of school districts are doing that. Enterprises include establishing a student store or a student shop.

On the other end of the spectrum is the idea that there can be greater connections made to community resources. And that is what the Zoo school is about. It is actually a way of reducing the cost of education by sharing resources with the community. So we took the idea and said we can do that with our design. We take each of the four ‘neighborhoods’ and spread them around the community. One is attached to a physical education facility, one is attached to a medical facility, one is attached to a performing arts facility, and the fourth to an engineering facility. You do this by developing partnerships. There is synergy in doing that. And again the Zoo school that I will show you on the tape is exactly that: it is the first one of five settings within this district called an Optional School. Instead of building in another 2000 student high school their going to build five 400 student optional schools. Each will be thematically identified, the first one as environmental studies, and the others will be humanities, business, medical arts, and technology.

I’m going to bring this part of the presentation to a close by going back to the forum where we are indicating the idea that learning needs to be fun, so this image shows the idea of a learning celebration.

In workshops we go through this process of designing the learning experience. First we ask the people involved to identify a product which would confirm the student had achieved one of the learner outcomes. Then we have them create a T-chart. They identify on the left side what learning events the students would have doing this project and on the right side the appropriate learning settings. In our experience about 95% of those learning settings are outside the classroom.

To conclude let’s go back to our one room school house. Fred Schroeder, an educator who started his own education in a one room school house, said: “The farther I travel from the quaint fragrant beginning, the closer as my affinity to the goals of the resourceful and idealistic rural teacher to whom no subject, course, nor age was separated from its neighbours, and with whom the school day became the invitation to circles of experience, widening outward from the common room so that child, nature, books and imagination were unified in adventure of growing and learning”.

I think that is what we threw out of that one room school house. The spirit in this design is to recapture some of that feeling.

(Presentation is completed with examples and video).


Copa, G.H., & Pease, V.H., New designs for the comprehensive high school, volume 1, Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of California, Berkeley, December 1992 (100 pages).

Copa, G.H., & Pease, V.H., New designs for the comprehensive high school, volume 2, Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of California, Berkeley, December 1992 (400 pages).

Copa, G.H., & Pease, V.H., A new vision for the comprehensive high school, executive summary, St. Paul, MN: National Center for Vocational Education, University of Minnesota site, December 1992.

Copa, G.H. (Ed.), New designs for the comprehensive high school, design update 1, St. Paul, MN: National Center for Vocational Education, University of Minnesota site, Summer 1994.

Copa, G.H. (Ed.), New designs for the comprehensive high school, design update 2, St. Paul, MN: National Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of Minnesota site, Winter 1994-95.

Note: The first two publications listed above are available from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education Materials Distribution Service, Western Illinois University, Horrabin Hall 46, Macomb, IL 61455. The phone number is (800) 637-7652.

The last three publications listed above are available from the New Designs for the Comprehensive School, 425D Vocational and Technical Education Building, University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108. The phone number is (612) 624-1705. The fax number is (612) 624-4720.

George H. Copa is the Rodney S. Wallace Professor of Teaching and Learning and Director, New Designs for the Comprehensive High School at the University of Minnesota, 1954 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota 55108. Bruce A. Jilk is an Educational Planner and Architect with Hammel Green and Abrahamson, Inc. 1201 Harmon Place, Minnesoplis, Mn 55403. This paper was prepared for presentation at the international conference on Future Prospects of Information Technology and Its Impact on the Learning Environment held September 1, 1995 in Gouda, the Netherlands and September 6-7, 1995 in Vienna, Austria.

Previous post:

Next post: