Cayman International School: The impact of design on learning

Construction of the new Early Childhood Centre at Cayman International School is proceeding apace, on track to open in August in time for the new school year.  While waiting lists at multiple grade levels prompted the decision to expand, the new facilities are reflective of the paradigm shift taking place in education, as explained by director Jeremy Moore at a public meeting held in early November.

Historically, children have gone to school because that was where the teacher, and therefore the knowledge was, said Dr Jeremy (as he is known to his students).  “Now knowledge is everywhere. A school’s role is to show children how to apply that knowledge. The facilities also need to change.” 

In partnership with Dart and International Schools Services, Dr Jeremy seized the opportunity to ensure the design of the early childhood centre and high school buildings - which together will nearly double the capacity of the school - match the school’s teaching philosophy. 

The traditional approach to education is based on “cells and bells” whereby learning takes place within the four walls of the classroom until a bell signals a release. Parallels with prison life may have been drawn in jest, but are a little too close for comfort. By contrast, contemporary education has a more organic flow, using flexible workspaces where students are encouraged to collaborate. 

In determining where CIS fits on the scale between traditional and contemporary, Dr Jeremy pegged them at eight out of ten. The existing school buildings already facilitate a modern style of learning, with their “maker labs” and use of outdoor space, but the expansion will take it to the next level.

“We are building flexibility into the building itself,” said Dr Jeremy, describing the retractable walls which can divide large rooms into smaller work pods, and various nooks and crannies where children can spend more reflective time thinking or reading.

He encouraged teachers to start a Pinterest board, collating inspiration and ideas from around the world.  Some of this online research has directly informed the final plans, including a stylised tree that has become a central feature of the early childhood centre’s library.

Designing the new facilities has been an iterative process, with input from students, parents, teachers and faculty guiding the work of architects Perkins + Will, a US-based firm with more than 75 years’ experience in school design.

The link between student performance and design has long been established.  While hard to quantify, studies show that the positive impact on learning is in the region of 16%.  With the expansion, CIS has a unique opportunity to customise design in accordance with teaching methods for the benefit of all who attend and work at the school for generations to come.