The challenges facing today’s learners have evolved substantially since many of our nation’s schools were built. Intuitively, we have always known that the environment can have a positive impact on teaching and learning, but today we have a much deeper understanding of the science behind how children learn and the environmental factors that promote positive results in attention, retention, and satisfaction. Our schools need to provide more opportunities for positive interaction – learner to learner, teacher to teacher, and learner to teacher.

The learning commons has been a central feature at several of our recent projects at Maine East, West, and South; Downers Grove North and South; Stevenson and New Trier High School remodeling projects; and in new construction at two schools for The Qatar Foundation in Doha, Qatar. The commons is also a feature in several recent elementary schools including Sunset Ridge School and Northwoods School in Highland Park.

The Heart of the School

The learning commons is the heart of the school. It is a place that students and staff want to be, one that provides access to student and staff resources, to study, collaborate, or simply grab a juice or cup of joe and interact.

In the past, interactions were centered within the classroom box. Corridors were only for the “commute”. If you consider the concept of propinquity – (the more you see someone, the more familiar are with them and the more likely you are to feel positive about them), then some effort should be made to allow those casual interactions to be positive. As a central component of the school, the learning commons facilitates daily interaction and contact as students and staff move through the commons in carrying out their daily routine.


As a place to connect, the Learning Commons is designed as a place that people want to be while creating an identity for the school. Natural light and a connection to the outdoors is desirable, especially outdoor eating or study spaces can be accommodated. The space should be acoustically lively, but controlled, and allow for some quieter interactions between small groups of students in a variety of group sizes. The commons should provide a variety of seating options that allow students and staff to be "alone in a crowd" or gather in groups. This concept allows a natural and personal choice to reduce the social pressure of finding a place to be.

Connecting Spaces Connects People

The learning commons is not “extra space.” Ideally it connects major resources within the school, linking as many areas as possible including libraries and learning centers, the cafeteria, academic resources and counseling, tech support, athletics, and fine arts. The commons create overflow spaces where these functions can grow. At New Trier, the Stem Lab opens onto the commons and uses the space to test projects for all to see. If the commons allow students to access resources, students can become proactive in seeking help when needed.

New Trier HS Truss Bridge Competition in Concourse Outside Design Sandbox
New Trier HS Concourse from Level 2 Library Commons on Right

Wayfinding, Security, and Circulation

The organizing function of the commons is critical. Instead of a maze of corridors and a trail of breadcrumbs, the visual connections aid newcomers as they find their way around the facility. If the commons is the entry point for visitors they will quickly become familiar with their location within the school. Significantly, most high schools become “airports” every 50 minutes or so. The learning commons can be designed to reduce bottlenecks and facilitate direct connections between multiple areas of the school, reducing travel times.

Learning on Display

It is important to leverage this space to demonstrate what the school is all about. Academic areas that open on to the Commons can be connected visually to create interest in the programs beyond the wall. Downers Grove has put their Culinary Arts program on display within a commons area to create interest in the program.

Part library, part cafeteria, part academic, part social, the commons area performs many functions. Space evolves throughout the day and even into after school hours, providing areas for clubs and teams to gather and practice. If a space brings people together for a purpose, facilitates connections, and promotes pride in the school, students will want to be there.