Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Learning and School Design 
I started drafting this blog a week ago and I have since visited Gahanna Lincoln High School.  Mr. Dwight Carter was a great host and gracious enough to give a couple hours of his time to myself and my colleagues.  When most of us think of classrooms or school buildings, we think of the traditional teacher dispensing knowledge to students in desks situated in rows.  If you walked into Gahanna Lincoln High School's Clark Hall with no prior knowledge, you probably wouldn't think you were in a high school.  Bright colors, modern furniture, open airy design, some students were working collaboratively on sofas, other students were working independently at countertops sitting on bar stools, and they had their cell phones, tablets and laptops out in the open with a teacher circulating the room providing assistance or feedback.  

In the 21st Century, schools should consider a variety of spaces or learning environments in school, both traditional and non-tradition (this blog is going to focus on the non-traditional).  Flexible space within classrooms and throughout the building   provide opportunities for lecture, collaboration, independent thinking, projects and labs, and other methods not yet considered for teachers to instruct/facilitate and for students to learn and create.  While there might not be a lot of quantitative research about the effects of design and space inside schools, there is mounting discussion and momentum from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Christian Long, and Ewan McIntosh, to name a few education professionals.

In the current economic climate as Christian Long mentioned at a conference, schools should not wait for the next big bond issue to build a new school or a "Clark Hall."  However, districts can use current resources to begin restructuring/renovating existing schools and spaces that lie within the old brick and mortar.  

First, paint is an affordable thing that can be done to liven schools up that also allows a school to ease into change.  Most schools have white or vanilla walls throughout the building, elementary buildings might be the exception to this stereotype. Three to five bright colors that are hip and modern that work together can go a long way to sprucing a place up. 

Next, finding "flexible space" outside of the classroom to renovate.  At Clark Hall, each academic floor had a large "flexible space" for students to collaborate or work independently during class time.  For example, a teacher might introduce, review or provide some direct instruction in regards to the learning objectives for the day in the first 15-20 minutes of class, then students break out to work on the work and a teacher can circulate providing feedback or provide intervention to students who are struggling back in the classroom. Then students are brought back in the final five to ten minutes to wrap up the lesson.  In existing buildings, classrooms could be combined and opened up.  There might not be an option to create large "flexible spaces" in various parts of a building.  So look for high traffic areas or nooks where students naturally congregate to renovate that space

Which leads to the role of furniture in renovating space, schools could think about the possibilities of a variety of furniture such as cafe tables, counter tops, coffee tables, end tables, traditional tables, lounge chairs, bean bags, and just a variety of modern chairs.  That is not so that traditional school furniture of desks, chairs, podiums does not continue to have importance to meet the balance of needs.

Next to last, scheduling is critically important.  Just as school space needs to be flexible so does the master schedule.  School leaders should consider how the schedule can be creatively designed to allow for such items as:
  • collaboration between two classes such as science and math,
  • longer and shorter classes based upon curricular needs and student learning styles, not all classes need to be 45 minutes or 100 minutes,
  • common planning time for teachers based upon classes taught,
  • advisory time for students based upon interests. 
Lastly, expectations are critical.  As Spiderman said, "With great power, comes great responsibility."  Giving students a variety of freedoms from technology to working outside of the classroom to demonstrating their learning in a variety of ways will allow students to learn responsibility and flexibility, which will prepare them for the "real world." 

In closing, I have just begun reading Sir Ken Robinson's Element, which is about where one finds what they are good at and what they love to do comes together.  If we are to help students find their "element," then we need the environment to facilitate learning that leads them in that direction. 

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