With its rectangular structures, long hallways and cookie-cutter classrooms, traditional school design is as fundamental as reading, writing and arithmetic. But these days, as K-12 learning environments evolve, so do design themes and practices.

Courtesy of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects
At San Clemente Elementary School, QKA designed a five-building, 39,860-sq-ft campus to meet the changing learning environment, featuring large composite learning suites that support a variety of teaching methodologies from group to individualized and peer learning.

"Things are rapidly changing," says Mark Quattrocchi, principal and founder of Santa Rosa-based Quattrocchi Kwok Architects. "We are looking at a different way of designing schools to respond to different ways of teaching."

Quattrocchi, whose company has designed about $1.2-billion worth of northern California schools since opening in 1986, says he has seen a shift in the way students are taught and in the way schools are built.

Up until the mid-1990s schools were designed and taught around a "cells and bells" format of individual self-contained classrooms, taught by a teacher to a group of students in a lecture format, with no connection to other rooms or the outside, says Quattrocchi. "It was like the Henry Ford industrial model of learning."

Quattrocchi, who recently participated in a conference called, “Learning Environments for Tomorrow: Next Practices for Educators and Architects" at Harvard University, says say research shows that the way students learn is changing. "Maybe the best way of teaching is not standing in front and lecturing. And as an architect, the more I learned about this, the more I thought we should design the classroom differently."

To help clients understand more about new 21st century learning environments, QKA took a group of students and teachers to a model school in Rhode Island, and to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. At Google, Quattrocchi says the group discovered employees that "aren't working by themselves quietly; that are actually integrating, and the skills they need to have are collaboration and cooperation and independent and critical thinking skills." At the school, they saw teachers sharing rooms, students breaking up into groups and working independently.

"The mission of our educational system is to prepare students for a 21st century work environment and when you consider how the work environment has changed over the years, our schools and buildings need to reflect that evolution," says Jeff Harding, superintendent of Healdsburg Unified School District in Northern California.  

As a result, Quattrocchi says the schools of today do not look like a row of classrooms. Instead there are large teaching spaces, with small breakout spaces, similar to an office conference room, with glass walls and easy access to outside learning areas, and hi-tech wireless connections everywhere.

There are even libraries combined with cafeterias, like at Cupertino High School. At this school, Quattrocchi says they observed how students interacted with the different facilities, using the library as a "horizontal space" and the cafeteria as a study area.

"We saw their lunchtime was a cherished opportunity for these students to work while eating—often collaboratively on projects," he says. "So we began to wonder if we could blur the lines between a cafeteria and a library. The café is a two-story volume with a mezzanine that connects to the library. Students can get their food, work on large tables with access to a robust wireless network or pass through large glass wall to use the library’s amenities."