How Design Can Build an Optimistic, Equitable Future for Education


By Mark Thaler, AIA

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to the way we live, work, and learn. For schools, the crisis has led to the transition to remote learning, which has revealed inequities and the prevalence of systemic racism. We must deeply engage our communities to emerge from this crisis. 

Consider the role of school as an engine of our communities and cities. By its nature, learning from home relies not only on access to technology, but on physical space, family support, and emotional bandwidth. While the pandemic has presented a challenge to every student, it has disproportionately challenged students within Black and brown communities. Feelings of safety and belonging in educational spaces play an essential role in the lives of students who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Yet, when it comes to the design of learning spaces, students are often forgotten stakeholders

In a New York Times guest essay, Dr. Jal Mehta, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes, “The first lesson that the pandemic has revealed is the limits of one-size-fits-all schooling. When we reopen schools, could we do so in a way that creates different kinds of opportunities for all kinds of students?"

Gensler’s research over the past year has demonstrated that equity and engagement are two sides of the same coin, and that the post-pandemic school will need to address both to ensure success. We’re far from fully grasping COVID’s long-term impact on students. It is especially essential that we as designers understand more about the nuances of urban students’ experiences. 

Gensler Research Institute’s recent survey of 1,500 students showed that nearly half of college students feel they are less successful academically now than they were prior to the pandemic. More than a third of community college students reported feeling less successful academically and more than half felt the pandemic negatively impacted their drive to learn. This research was informed by the Self-Determination Theory of human motivation introduced by Edward Deci, Ph.D., and Richard Ryan, Ph.D., in the 1980s. Their theory identifies three innate needs that frame our approach to designing the post-pandemic school: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Gensler translates these needs to design opportunities through the ideas of connectivity, adaptability, and choice.

We need to disrupt design philosophy and listen to students.

Our institute also established the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, focused specifically on funding studies that address systemic racism, unconscious bias, and social justice.

As part of this, we surveyed students from 18 mostly public high schools in New York City to learn more about their school perception. The survey was organized into four categories: demographics, safety, belonging, and experience. We also asked students to review different schools and classrooms and share their impressions. 

We learned that students can readily identify symbolism in design choices, and that many students immediately observed the wealth disparity that is inherent in the design of schools. A senior from Queens, who identified as Hispanic or LatinX, said, “One school looks very professional, where those who attend succeed, whereas the other one feels very restricted, and those who attend don’t get far in life.” A senior from Brooklyn, who identified as Black, noted, “I believe that one school has more successful students. I believe it is the windows that give that idea to me.”  

We now know that the “average learner" is a myth, and we have an incredible opportunity to shift the paradigm. It is not only about providing equality of design but equity in design, so all users can engage for their individual needs. It’s about moving away from traditional corridors and fixed classrooms and opting for teaching spaces organized around open, collaborative areas that support a flexible and diverse project-based curriculum. The school of the future should not ask how it can best support the average learner, but how it can best support all learners.

We cannot predict the future of our post-pandemic world, but we can collectively shape the possibilities of an optimistic way forward. The pandemic has drawn attention to challenges around equity and designing for multiple paths to success with which education and our communities have historically struggled. We cannot look away. Leveraging what we have learned from this experience can only lead to positive outcomes. We need to disrupt how we think. We need to disrupt design philosophy and listen to students. Rather than designing one universal learning experience, we need to design for equity and engagement through choice, adaptability, and connectivity: . multiple pathways that spark the joy of learning in each student.


Mark Thaler is the global co-leader of Gensler’s Education practice and one of the firm’s experts in the design of learning environments and student spaces. His projects span the academic spectrum, from K-12 through higher education, and have earned numerous accolades, including an Award of Merit from the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education, and a Citation from AIA New York State for the Hajjar STEM Center. Thaler serves on the National Board of Schools That Can, where he currently chairs its thought leadership committee.