Visual Listening

Interactive exercises that engage students, administrators, teachers, board members and community members to develop an understanding of their unique vision for the future.

Typically, the discussion of developing an educational program for a project revolves around an accounting of each space, quantity, its size and adjacency requirements. As every district is unique in their focus, program and budget, Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates (CRA Architects) utilizes a variety of exercises to create meaningful dialogue among all stakeholders about the ideal 21st Century vision. Our process allows each client to identify the appropriate level of safety, security and most importantly, how to provide 21st Century learning environments.

Visual Listening is an exercise where a series of images of educational spaces are placed on a wall, and students, teachers and parents use colored dots to indicate school spaces, images and features that they like and do not like.  Different stakeholders may have different colored dots to represent what they like or dislike.  This allows us to know which stakeholder groups are putting their dots on the specific images.  The session is led by one of our educational planners who review the placed dots and look to engage a dialogue with the stakeholders on why they liked certain spaces and why they dislike other spaces.  We also learn how their existing facilities provide the types of desired spaces or not.   When there is a specific image that has received more dots than others or specifically more dots from a specific stakeholder group, the discussion focuses on what they saw, what they liked or disliked and how it relates to their vision for the design.


Case Study – Greencastle-Antrim School District – Visual Listening for a District Wide Facility Study

CRA Architects recently engaged a group of elementary students and administration at Greencastle-Antrim School District.  The elementary group consisted of 10 students, a group of parents, and a group of teachers.  The groups took their time to examine the images and placed their dots accordingly.  It showed that the groups tended to like and dislike the same things.  Traditional classrooms and corridors lined with lockers received the red or yellow negative dots and collaborative learning areas and educational spaces with daylight received the positive blue and green dots.  The discussion that resulted showed that students prefer more daylight and a direct visual access to the outside over small, visually inaccessible windows.

“Students learn a whole different way than when I was a kid,” reflected Larry Levato, AIA one of the firm’s architects and educational planners, and commented how when we do these exercises the popularity of collaborative and flexible spaces.

Our planners reinforced this thought with the evidence that shows students test scores increase with daylight in their classrooms.  However the discussion also looked at how windows that were too large, or opened to active outdoor spaces could be distracting.  The discussion also reviewed how safety and security play a role in the types and location of windows.

Case Study – Manheim Township School District – Design of a new Middle School

As part of another Visual Listening exercise for the design of the Manheim Township Middle School there was a division in regards to some of the images shown for the collaborative learning spaces.  The students all identified images that showed these spaces as something that they liked, however many of the teachers identified these spaces as dislikes.  The discussion showed that the teachers were concerned about safety and supervision issues with open spaces and the students were seeking independence and autonomy.  The two groups talked about how these spaces could be designed in the new Middle School to provide opportunities for independent learning but still provide the necessary lines of sight for supervision from the staff.


During these exercises the design team takes detailed notes, photographs each picture with the dots and the overall session.  We take the information learned and summarize each finding as part of the conceptual design process.  As we start making decisions on the design of the school, we are able to go back and reflect on many of the design discussions that took place during the visual listening exercise.

The Architects design process for educational facilities evaluates educational design standards that may be mandated by the local jurisdiction, state or federal requirements.  We engage best practices that our educational planners learn for working with organizations such as A4LE, the Association for Learning Environments, a national organization that focuses on educational design and leading innovation into the intersection between learning and place.

CRA Architects believes this process is vital to ensuring the planning of a project and the educational program is engaging, relevant and unique. As a firm we were founded on a mission statement of a “Client-oriented Approach to Architecture,” and feel this is the best way to follow this mission by engaging students, staff and administration.

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