21st Century Classrooms for 21st Century Learning

At my high school most classrooms had at least one wall painted a bold teal. As a student, I heard a rumor that the particular shade was chosen by the school administration because it was “the learning color”—one that kept kids focused and engaged. (Nevermind that the activity that went on inside those walls challenged […]

At my high school most classrooms had at least one wall painted a bold teal. As a student, I heard a rumor that the particular shade was chosen by the school administration because it was “the learning color”—one that kept kids focused and engaged. (Nevermind that the activity that went on inside those walls challenged that notion.)

I can’t verify that the administrators believed in the power of the learning color, but it wouldn’t be the first time educators considered how a school’s physical space encouraged or stymied learning. In the 21st century, as new pedagogies aim to empower students to take charge of their own education, many are noting that traditional classroom designs—with the desks in rows and teachers at the front of the room—won’t cut it.

“Redesigning learning spaces” is one of the trends documented in the 2016 K-12 New Media Consortium/Consortium for School Networking Horizon Report. Each year the organizations team up to chart current forces and technologies influencing education, and to predict what’s to come. In this year’s report, new learning space design is one of two “long-term trends,” predicted to influence teaching and learning, ed tech adoption, and education policy over the next five years. “Rethinking how schools work” is the other long-term trend. Shorter-term trends include collaborative and deeper learning, coding as literacy, and students as creators.

“Redesign” is a blanket term that can mean any number of upgrades to a learning space. At one end of the spectrum are small alterations to classrooms like better lighting or a different temperature. The Horizon report mentions a University of Washington study that found these minor changes can improve academic performance.

When it comes to more substantial changes, the United States is likely a bit behind the curve. New Zealand requires that all public schools include the development of flexible learning spaces in their 10-year plans. The government issued guidelines for improving flexibility and has funded 1,600 new spaces, according to the Horizon report. A common feature is flexible or moveable furniture that can quickly be reconfigured for a group project, technology use, or a lecture.

A couple years ago on this blog, we interviewed Yarra Howze, principal at Pittsburgh Allegheny 6-8. She had recently returned from Finland, where she toured school spaces designed with effective learning in mind. The schools, she reported back to us, strayed away from the compartmentalization common at U.S. schools.

[pullquote]“If you walk into a classroom and all the desks are arranged in rows,” she says, “you are being conditioned for a certain behavior”—behavior that is more passive and less engaged.[/pullquote]

“Finns are big on collaboration and build with collaboration in mind,” she said. “To promote that, nothing in the school had just one function.” The cafeteria, for example, doubled as a gym and the classroom desks were constantly rearranged. Within one classroom, there were different kinds of learning spaces, so students with different learning styles each had their needs met.

“Instead of what we’d call a hallway, there was a collaborative workspace,” Howze said. The hallways were filled with colorful beanbag chairs, where students could study or play. The design demonstrated to students that learning can happen anywhere and anytime, not just inside a classroom between bells.

A high school in Denmark, notes the Horizon report, has abolished classrooms altogether. The Ørestad Gymnasium in Denmark is a 1,000-student school in one single, gigantic room. The open design is supposed to promote collaboration and creativity. (Temporary walls can be erected on occasion.)

As the report says, some U.S. schools have taken note. The Journal profiled an elementary school in Athens, Georgia, where desks are replaced with tables, and little alcoves off of the hallways serve as teacher-student or small group meeting spots. The school’s physical building is also leveraged as a learning tool, through an exposed rainwater collection system, and maps of Georgia plastered on the floors.

Learning space design has a direct impact on student conduct, say Lennie Scott-Webber, director of education environments at Steelcase Education, a design firm and shop, in the article.

“If you walk into a classroom and all the desks are arranged in rows,” she says, “you are being conditioned for a certain behavior”—behavior that is more passive and less engaged.

A teacher in the article also notes that classroom reconfiguration can become a design challenge for students themselves. The activity can give them a sense of ownership of the space.

These redesigned schools won’t be anomalies for long if the Horizon predictions come to fruition. The proliferation of mobile devices and wireless internet also promotes flexibility, as classes are no longer tethered to computer labs or electric outlets. The rapid evolution of education technology will likely continue to support or even demand school redesigns.

In fact, the Horizon report—produced each year by an international panel of education and technology experts—goes so far as to predict the trends approaching schools in the near future. And the near future is digital.

In the pipeline, according to the report: wearable technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and robotics.


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