Takeaways from the 2017 A4LE Conference

The Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) annual conference is where some of the world’s greatest school facility minds get together to share their experiences, knowledge, and accomplishments. Each year I’m eager to go, looking forward to the learning we’ll bring back to our practice. This year we had more to look forward to, making our first presentation to an accomplished international audience.

As usual the conference lived up to my expectations! Right out of the gate the first presenters expanded my perspective by presenting the concept of “unlearning” and its importance for modern learners in a rapidly changing world. Google: “The Backwards Brain Bicycle” for a thought provoking video showing that knowledge does not equal understanding.

The second session titled Wholeness – The Key to Unlocking Innovation in Education built a case for an emerging trend in school facility design, that I’ll call the “Well School” movement. The Well Building Standard is a performance based rating system that measures the quality of built environment features that impact human health and wellbeing. The seminar presented new research, such as a study by the University of British Columbia called: The link between classroom teacher burnout and morning cortisol in elementary school students. Teacher burnout is a bigger concern than I realized. Bad things happen (to teachers and students) when elevated cortisol levels occur over prolonged periods of time. This is information school planners and designers can use!

As if connected, several of the sessions showcased how nature can be incorporated in the design of school facilities, creating restorative environments. By my account, NAC Architecture made the most memorable presentation, showing some great natural environments incorporated into new schools (favorite example: “Farming Kindergarten / Vietnam / Vo Trong Nghia Architects).

I was also reminded of the daunting challenge faced by the nation’s largest public urban school districts. I might not normally have attended a session about the Boston Public School District, but a chance conversation with Kate Jessup from SMMA Architects over lunch, hearing about the challenges that they faced developing a master plan for the school district, convinced me to attend. Wow, talk about challenges! They need our QLEO analysis more than they know.  he asked me why we haven’t presented QLEO at the conference. I forget that the people who understand how powerful the QLEO tool is, is other architects.

One thing I am becoming concerned about is the recipe for the typical presentation, which goes something like this:

Show new research
Show your beautiful buildings (understood to apply that research)


that the benefits of that research have been realized.

Anyone who has done research knows it doesn’t work that way. We learned this on the way to developing our seminar “Hacking the School Building, an innovators guide to future ready learning environments”. The presentation chronicled the process that delivered the innovative design for the Charles City Middle School. We completed research to understand the degree to which the facility design changed student outcomes. The presentation was well received (HUGE thank you to the amazing Charles City School District). One piece of constructive feedback received was that our evidence based design needed to be a bigger part of the presentation.

I think this will become a bigger and bigger effort on behalf of leading school design firms….and it needs to be. If we suffer from “confirmation bias”, assuming our new designs achieve desired results without a rigorous analysis, we risk losing credibility in the eyes of the public. Building public confidence is tough work. Architectural firms that take the extra step of completing research will move the ball forward. As a school planner / designer, I always want our designs to hit the mark all of the time. However, given the choice between being right and knowing the truth, I would rather know the truth.

That’s way more important to our clients.

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