03/07/2011 05:46 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Redefining the Classroom

This past week I had the opportunity to visit with some students at the campus of my alma mater, Virginia Tech. (how 'bout them Hokies beating Duke??!!?) The students were from the colleges of Architecture and Building Construction. They are investigating an alternative to the typical temporary classroom structures.

"Learning Pods," Temporary Learning Cottages, Portables...whatever your local district calls them they all amount to trailers. And nobody likes to see their kids going to school in a trailer.

The lighting is bad, the air is bad, the acoustics are bad and the vibes are bad -- most of the time, it doesn't feel like a place where exciting, innovative education happens.

So the students I met with wanted to tackle theses issue in a way that only academia can; by taking it apart and starting at the most basic level. That, I suppose, is where I was to come in; what is the essence of a classroom? What are the essentials of a learning environment?

I asked the students to tell me what makes a classroom; if they were to walk into an academic building on campus, walk down a hallway looking into one space after another, what would tell them that one was a classroom and another was not?

Desks. Their universal answer was "desks". Not technology, not natural lighting, not even acoustical clarity. The answer was desks. All neatly in a row, typically facing a larger desk set to one side.

Now, when I asked what would make a great classroom they started with issues like technology and lighting and acoustics. So maybe that is their challenge; to get from where we are; our realities, to where we need to be; our possibilities.

One of the reasons that the team at Virginia Tech wanted to take on this problem was because of their success in last year's U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

I'm proud to say that my alma mater, Virginia Tech, won the 2010 Solar Decathlon that was held, for the first time, in Europe. In a closely judged competition, the Virginia Tech team won by less than one point in the overall standings for their Lumenhaus, an innovative design integrating architecture and technology:

LUMENHAUS epitomizes a "whole building design" construction approach, in which all the home's components and systems have been designed to work together to maximize user comfort with environmental protection.

LUMENHAUS is an amazing accomplishment. It was inspired by the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe, and like that 1951 masterpiece it is an open pavilion in which each room is designed to be flexible to the owner's changing needs. You can see a documentary about LUMENHAUS here.

The Lumahus represents truly innovative approaches to sustainable energy, efficient use of renewable materials and a respect for the environment and world around us. All great principles to be used in the design for any school, even a temporary one.

Principles of daylighting and natural light, air quality and condition, acoustics, technology and furnishings were all a part of the Lumahus design and will be incorporated into Va Tech's temporary classroom.

But what about the permanent classroom design? One student asked, "so what happens if we get this right and the students like our temporary classrooms better than their permanent classrooms?"

Wouldn't that be the height of irony? To shift the paradigm so much that students and teacher actually prefer the temporary facilities! And only because the solution will have focused on elements integral to a positive learning environment.

In the 2009 Master Facilities Plan, the District of Columbia Public School system identified the classroom as the primary component instrumental to a successful learning environment. Their conclusion was that the prekindergarten through 5th grade students spent more than 90% of their academic life in these rooms and efforts spent in these areas would have the most immediate impact. They specifically focused on five elements; daylighting, air quality, acoustics, ergonomics and technology.

Each element has extensive substantiation, through published research, as having a beneficial impact on both student and teacher performance and health. From the Heschong Mahone Group studies of daylighting in 1999 and 2003 to the Collaborative for High Performing Schools Best Practices Manual, the concepts embraced by DC Schools will result in better places to learn. But these elements, alone, will not create better classrooms.

For the past six months I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the Chief Academic and Accountability Officer for Detroit Public Schools. On top of all of her myriad responsibilities she has taken a personal interest in the design and configuration of the new and renovated schools projects that are underway in Detroit.

In the fall of 2009 the voters of Detroit voted to extend their taxes in order to fund a $500M School Construction Bond program. Eight new schools and ten major renovations will, in her words, have a major impact on the lives of thousands of families next year and in years to come. This realization drives her, and inspires those of us who are partnering with her as we consider materials, finishes, colors and furnishings.

This is not a charter that she takes lightly, nor do we. This focus on the educational environment comes from her belief that a good teacher can find a way to succeed in a bad classroom but that same teacher can do really amazing things in a great classroom.

So perhaps, when the students at Virginia Tech consider this new model for a temporary classrooms it is not only desks and computers,daylighting and air quality, and fixtures and equipment; but also teachers and students all working together.

I would say that it is not a classroom until it has the people. Creating a place to learn requires the human element. Otherwise it is just a building.