School of One

A personalized instruction program’s needs challenge the conventional classroom

By Charles Linn, FAIA

Among the case studies published in the 1855 edition of Henry Barnard’s Practical Illustrations of the Principles of School Architecture was the Ingraham Primary School House in Boston. With the exception of the fireplace, and wonderfully enormous windows, its 30-by-22-foot classrooms aren’t much different from those in use today.

Typical classroom shape and dimensions haven’t changed much, and many would argue there’s nothing wrong with that, because with rare exceptions, the way a teacher delivers information to 25 or 30 students in a classroom hasn’t changed much either. Joel Rose, the New York City Department of Education’s chief executive for human capital, wants to change that. He’s leading a pilot program called School of One that has the potential to drastically change the way children are taught, and the way classrooms are designed.

Rose saw firsthand that conventional instruction has serious shortcomings when he was a fifth-grade teacher, particularly in dealing with the fact that students learn at different rates and in different ways. “There was an incredible diversity of needs in my students,” he says. “It was a myth that I could ever personalize my instruction to the needs of each one. I had kids who read on a second-grade level, and kids who could read on an eighth-grade level.”

Rose says that one day he was visiting a technical school when he had a revelation. “There is a big sign that says, ‘Choose your modality,’ meaning that students could choose to learn using the teaching modality that worked best for them. That could be in a classroom, online at home, or by coming in and meeting with a teaching assistant. A big lightbulb went on in my head.” One of the keys to dealing with students’ diversity of needs was to allow them the option of learning in different ways so they could work at their own pace.

“The idea that every iota of learning needs to come through an adult at the front of a room is very 18th century. We know kids can also learn online, in groups, or through virtual tutors or live ones.” Rose felt that if all of these modalities could be integrated in a single setting, and each child’s progress could be monitored every day, several things could be accomplished. First, lesson plans could be constantly personalized on the basis of what a child needed to learn, and the best instructional materials for teaching it could be changed at any time. Second, students and their teachers could choose the modality that would produce the best results. “Kids who like to learn in groups can spend more time in groups. Kids who like to learn online can spend more time online. But that doesn’t mean that a child is going to sit in front of a computer all day.”

It’s easier said than done — but new tools make it possible. One is a teaching-support system. Extensive testing is done at the beginning of each term in order to evaluate which skills each individual student needs to acquire to keep up with their particular grade level. School of One students also take a survey that establishes their learning styles and preferences. Based on these assessments, a “playlist” of skills that students must master during the term is developed. Appropriate instructional materials drawn from a multitude of different sources can be used in the modality that suits each student. But the thing that really sets it apart is that each student’s progress is monitored at the end of each day, and their playlists are updated constantly. As Rose says, “This program sorts out who is failing to get which concepts today and to determine which lesson to apply tomorrow morning.”

New Architecture for new instruction

New instructional models always challenge architectural conventions. The American Architectural Foundation’s (AAF) Great Schools by Design program studies innovative schools and often dispatches resource teams to work with school districts that are implementing new ways of teaching. Its C.E.O., Ron Bogle, Hon. AIA, says, “We have been doing focus groups of schools that are recognized as having been exceptionally well designed, and we’re finding that they have evolved around new kinds of instruction. A school that is traditionally designed will reinforce a traditional way of teaching. Innovatively designed buildings send a signal that says, ‘Beware. Those who enter here do not teach the old way.’ ” He says that in these cases, architects are working with educators to “figure out how to design spaces that support collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, community, and transparency.”

Last spring, the AAF dispatched a resource team to hold a charrette with the educators and administrators who would be responsible for running the first School of One pilot at Middle School 131 in New York City over the summer. The purpose was twofold. Not only would they help assess the space available for the pilot and plan the way it might be used, but they would also examine the way architectural design could be used in support of the School of One instructional methodology. John Weekes, AIA, of Dull Olson Weekes Architects, led the charrette. “I’m not sure there’s only one way a kid learns. In a typical school, we create a classroom for one way of instruction, and everyone has to fit that. What is different about the School of One is not just that the instructional modalities are changing, but when you take the teacher out of a direct-instruction environment and make him or her more of a participant in the learning, and put the kids in charge of their own instruction, it fundamentally changes the way spaces get organized.” The drawings show how such a school might appear someday (see previous page). Rooms are smaller than one might find typically, and a variety of furniture types and partitions can be rearranged quickly and easily.

The students begin their day at a central gathering space. “That’s like a living room, where the students go in the morning and pick up their new playlist, and see what they will be doing that day.” Although classrooms for large-group instruction are available, “We envision that they could be rearranged in 12 or 15 different ways,” Weekes says. “But most of the time, students will be in small groups of 10 to 15, or working individually or in groups of two or three.” Students who are doing individualized instruction will be using wireless laptops or PDAs; some computing will be mobile, although computers in other rooms will be hardwired. Smaller learning centers, which are basically extensions of the central area, allow the space that is generally devoted to corridors to be utilized more efficiently.

For the pilot program itself, the AAF resource team toured the school looking for a space that would adequately host the 80 students and 10 faculty and staff members. Traditional classrooms available in the school would not have allowed the flexibility that was necessary, and no single classroom could accommodate all the students at the same time. Eventually the staff found ways of temporarily dividing the too-large library, using portable partitions and relocating shelves.

Acoustical privacy during the pilot was also not the issue that people expected it might be, which yields a lesson that could apply almost anywhere. “I think students get distracted if they are getting content they are not ready to learn,” says Rose. “They were ready, and that cut down the distractions. In a conventional classroom, kids may look like they are paying attention but sometimes their minds are in another place. That was not the case here.”

Evaluation and the future

Does School of One work? The progress of students participating in the program last summer was independently assessed by the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology. It found a significant improvement. In a comparison of pre- and post-program test scores, students had an average increase of 28 percent in the number of test items they answered correctly. The New York City Department of Education is betting on the project and will expand it into three city schools in January, and five more next fall. Apparently, it is a good bet: School of One was named one of Time magazine’s “50 Best Inventions for 2009.”

Rose says, “I think that the architecture community is scapegoated because of the experiments with open classrooms 40 years ago. I don’t think the absence of walls was the problem. The problem was the absence of a clear instructional program that delivered on student outcomes.” Rose worries about the open-classroom stigma because he believes open space is one of the keys to personalized learning. He cautions both the architecture and education communities, saying, “It isn’t enough to be focused on the next whiz-bang school. We have to shift our brainpower to the business problem that we have, which is, How do we improve the problem of teaching and learning in our schools? The extent to which we can have a solution requires an integration of all the pieces.”


So, what might a School of One school look like? To find out, New York City Department of Education’s School of One faculty and staff gathered with architects John Weekes, AIA, of Dull Olson Weekes Architects; John Pflueger, AIA, of Cuningham Group Architects; and educational planner Susan Wolff, director of Wolff Designs. The occasion was a charrette put on last May by the American Architecture Foundation and sponsored by Target.

It became immediately apparent that there would be major differences between a School of One and conventional schools. First, because each School of One student would have his or her “playlist” (a list of skills they must acquire during the current term) updated every morning, they would need a place to check in when they arrived for school. This area could be similar to a reception area in an office building. A perspective (1) and the sketch on the previous page show such a space. Monitors in these areas would display where each student should go for their lessons that day.

One of the concepts behind School of One is that a variety of instructional modalities would be available for each student so they could choose the one that works best for them. This would require a variety of different kinds of spaces. In the conceptual axonometrics (3,4), some spaces would be used for lectures for 20 to 30 students, but most of the spaces are smaller. For example, a student could study with others in a small group led by a teacher or do self-directed study using a laptop. He or she could also be tutored one-on-one by a mentor.

This new kind of school would also feature a wide variety of furniture: a combination of tables and chairs that one might ordinarily expect to find in a classroom (2), as well as more comfortable lounge chairs one might find in a library. Partitions that could be moved on the fly as well as semipermanent walls that could be changed between terms would give the spaces great flexibility.

Images: Courtesy American Architectural Foundation/
Dull Olson Weekes Architects and Cuningham Group Architect



Last summer, 80 students, four teachers, and four teacher interns took part in the very first School of One pilot, held at Middle School 131, in New York City’s Chinatown. Its library was transformed into the very first classroom of this type. The library was chosen because it had the largest open area in the building that also had low ceilings for acoustical control and good lighting. It was not desirable to erect permanent walls for the summer, so makeshift partitions were used to divide the space. The AAF charrette held to help plan the space yielded some surprises. School of One founder Joel Rose says, “We learned that for different modalities there is often an optimal furniture configuration.” Two of the modalities used in the program were self-guided instruction using laptops (1,3) and small-group instruction (2,4). “And we found the number of modality types exceeded the number of spaces and types of furniture we had.”

Photos © Moriza