Performance Driven, Poetically Crafted Architecture

Differentiated Learning

November 9, 2018
by Don McKay

Schools are moving towards immersive learning environments that welcome students’ curiosity. Learning naturally follows.


Differentiation is a useful concept across a wide range of scientific, technological and mathematical disciplines. Two forms of differentiation have gained recent cultural relevance—differentiated learning and differentiated experience. They emphasize individual differences as opposed to what we have in common. Differentiation is a common denominator between these two forms, but the values underlying them are distinct, even opposite of one another.

Differentiated, or individualized, learning is rooted in a recognition that education models suited to industrialization are not suited to the Information Age in which accelerating change demands an ability to adapt and apply knowledge gained in one arena to the emerging challenges of a new one. An independent school recognizes that about a quarter of its students have an aptitude for and innate interest in science, that another quarter of its students might not ever, and that the remaining fifty percent might if they were more naturally engaged by the subject. Differentiated learning that provides different students with different paths to learning becomes a way of doing so.

By contrast, differentiated experience is a means to improved customer satisfaction and increased profit. A hotel mines customers’ social media accounts and online surveys to have a guest’s favorite coffee awaiting their arrival. Big Data has made differentiated, or individualized, experiences the norm. “Today’s consumers” no longer exist, but businesses have countless opportunities to serve “The consumer I am today.”

Technology is another common denominator between differentiated learning and differentiated experience, though in very different ways. The cultural and sociological effects of information technology have driven the need for improved learning models. By contrast, information technology has created an opportunity for differentiated experience where none was feasible before. Differentiated experience has so far had little effect on the built environment, but differentiated learning has, particularly in school design.

Differentiated Learning

During industrialization, classrooms emphasized teaching, the “sage on the stage.” Differentiated learning shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning. This shift does not diminish the role of the teacher—quite the opposite. An education model that creates different learning paths according to the aptitudes and interests of students requires extraordinary effort from educators.

Teachers have always recognized that students learn differently, and they have intuitively adapted their teaching to individual student needs within whatever constraints their education system imposed. Contemporary theories rooted in studies of how the brain works, like the theory of multiple intelligences, are providing ways for educators, school administrations and parents to understand the science behind students’ varied learning abilities. Differentiated learning strategies like individualized learning plans have helped formalize a process that teachers have long engaged in. Perhaps most importantly, a more formalized process has given teachers explicit support for differentiated instruction efforts that were often hidden.

One important way to support teachers differentiated learning efforts is through classroom design that is flexible and adaptable. The development of a wide range of movable and reconfigurable furniture systems has given educators the flexibility to adapt the classroom a broad range of configurations. Ever evolving information technologies complement furnishings to support differentiated learning strategies.

Immersive Learning Environments

The classroom has been and remains an immersive learning environment. Classrooms are often the domain of individual teachers who use the neutral architecture of the classroom as a canvas on which to paint a range of age appropriate educational exhibits that cumulatively create an immersive learning environment.

As our understanding of learning has evolved, so has the recognition that learning also happens outside the classroom. Current trends in school design emphasize the potential of non-classroom spaces for informal learning. The communal nature of non-classroom school environments like hallways, cafeterias and meeting spaces has meant that they have been treated as neutral environments compared to classrooms.

Classrooms become immersive learning environments because they are the domain of individual teachers who have sole authority for how they are embellished. Non-classroom spaces have not been considered in a similarly immersive way because it requires consensus among multiple educators, school administrations and, perhaps, parents. School designers who recognize the potential of non-classroom environments, often propose flexible but neutral spaces to avoid the challenges of building consensus for a more immersive learning environment.

The Latin School of Chicago met these challenges with the design and implementation of their Upper School Science Center. The result is an interactive and immersive environment that genuinely engages that middle fifty percent of students who are open to but not effectively engaged in science education.

Design of the Science Center began with a fundamental discussion between educators and designers about the nature of scientific education. Traditional education models were rooted in a linear approach that began with biology and ended with physics. Latin School educators flipped this model to begin with physics, which in many ways underlies our understanding of biology and other sciences. Consensus for this idea became a building block towards consensus for the design of the immersive environment that defines the Science Center.

The immersive environment approach to the Science Center extends to other Latin School environments like stairways and common space. This project illustrates the potential of immersive learning environments outside the classroom to welcome students’ curiosity. Learning naturally follows.