“Designing Progressive Schools” by dhk Senior Associate, Sarah Patterson

Article source: Architect and Builder

Writer: dhk Senior Associate, Sarah Patterson

New Trends

Over the past several years, schools around the world including South Africa, have begun to embrace new modes of learning. This shift has emerged as a result of technological advancements, new ways of accessing and disseminating information, as well as a pedagogical shift towards blended learning. The latter is a method of collaborative, interdisciplinary exercises that involve multiple forms of interaction. With this, we have seen an increased focus on combining science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and more recently, art-based subjects into creative problem-solving activities, along with the emergence of robotics as a standard feature in the curriculum.  

Additionally, there is now greater awareness of the need to extend the curriculum to include entrepreneurial- and vocational-based skills training as part of the basic curriculum. Along with technological agility and more flexibility, there exists an unprecedented opportunity for learning to become increasingly personalised. 

Impact for architecture

So, what does this mean for the architectural design of schools? What are the ‘spatial instruments’ that facilitate such new modes of learning and how are they different from traditional learning environments? How do we create dynamic and stimulating learning environments to support a range of activities which could enable educators to curate classes? 

The answers to these questions are in clusters of differently sized, interconnected spaces often directly adjacent to or connected by circulation spaces which become recreational areas or extensions of the learning environment. The interconnected nature often requires a high level of visual and physical connection, for example large, glazed openings. However, this tends to present an acoustic challenge, and with this, comes with the obvious tension between the stimulation of interaction and the need to focus – spaces must balance a sense of containment with a feeling of connectedness.  

In our view, the task for the design team is to cost-effectively enable flexibility and multi-functionality but not to lose sight of the need to adhere to the basic tenants of good environmental design. Without natural daylight and fresh air, good acoustics and thermal comfort – not to mention a connection to the outdoors – the ability to engage meaningfully is compromised. 

These big leaps in flexibility and multi-functionality are made possible via the architecture, furniture and clever storage which play a significant support role in mode shifting. These include mobile furniture items that are quickly arranged in various ways; whether on wheels or are sufficiently light to manoeuvre. This could be storage that doubles up as seating or inviting nooks and perches to engage in a variety of different activities. Other examples are smart acoustic panels that house screens, Wi-Fi points or other technologies while doubling as colourful absorbers of sound. Increasingly, the need to move, sit, stand, and even lie down and learn, are being facilitated via bar counters, poofs, ottomans, large staircases, and cave-like nooks. 

What about SA?

You might say that this all sounds somewhat indulgent and beyond the means of most schools in our country. Very few schools in SA can afford to extend their current facilities to cater to this expanded and evolving curriculum. We believe that the key is to take as many opportunities as possible from the design of new schools and emulate the principles of flexible, interconnected spaces to a greater degree as possible. This means that the same set of buildings must transform to become more multi-functional; to accommodate smaller segregated groups (particularly where there are significant age gaps) while also being able to host larger gatherings and activities. Combine this with a carefully considered masterplan, which has outside spaces being equally important to their adjoining internal clusters, and we believe that it can enable as many opportunities for educators to put into practice the activities associated with blended learning (regardless of the degree of technological capacity).  

Investigations into how we might achieve this have tended towards a modular approach of primary and secondary structural elements. This allies well with another trend gaining further traction in the more cost-effective approach to the roll-out of schools which is the ‘Design for Manufacture and Assembly’ aspect. There are two components to this. Firstly, from a space-planning perspective, the modularity enables an adaptability which can be applied to multiple classroom instances. And secondly, the carefully considered modular method which uses standardised components making the ease of both production and assembly possible in a limited time frame. 


What defines our current era is a massive increase in the agility and agency of the individual to, with the help of technology, navigate their own learning experience. This theme of adaptability has seen the notion of what constitutes a school transformed into a variety of different learning environments. Schools of all sizes are popping up in various places with former office buildings and warehouses being kitted out as learning spaces. Recreational activities are being reconceived, too. Climbing, functional fitness, rooftop courts and club sports are alternatives to the traditional field-based sports. This is an exciting sector to watch evolve, potentially offering multiple routes to obtaining a well-rounded education.