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Space Exploration

Today’s optimal learning environment is adaptable, transparent, and connected in more ways than one

February 17, 2015
photo of a new school building, with students in open lobby area

When it comes to the creation of 21st-century learning environments, what are the key considerations to optimize learning?

Educator and architect David Stephen answers that question on a daily basis. As the founder of Boston-based consulting firm, New Vista Designs for Learning, and co-author of Architecture for Achievement: Building Patterns for Small School Learning, Stephen brings his wealth of experience to the upcoming professional education institute, Learning Environments for Tomorrow: Next Practices for Educators and Architects. In advance of the seminar, Usable Knowledge asked him to talk about designing — or re-creating — inspirational spaces for today’s students and educators.

How do you define a “learning environment?” Is it more than just the physical structure of a classroom or a school building?

We tend to think of K–12 schools as collections of classrooms and administrative areas, but I would define learning environments as both physical and virtual, and encompassing the different contexts and cultures in which students learn.

The demands of our global and technology-focused economy is leading schools to place increased emphasis on students being creators of their own knowledge. In addition to delivering content in more traditional ways, many schools are experimenting with problem-based learning where kids work on projects that have authentic contexts, often within their communities. Schools are increasingly taking advantage of learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom and school walls.

Can you give examples of how school design has been shaped by the latest research and best practices in teaching and learning?

We know we need to be creating much more varied and flexible learning environments — spaces where students are proactively learning and not just passively receiving information. Here are a just few examples:

  • The concept of the four Cs — the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity — suggests the need for more integrated, problem- and inquiry-based, and hands-on approaches to teaching and learning. We will see more maker spaces, fabrication labs, and project rooms.
  • The teacher is no longer the sole source of information or the “sage on the stage.” Students will be challenged to be more proactive and independent, with teachers taking the role of facilitator. This shift, and the need for differentiated instruction, calls for venues for independent, small-group, large-group, and project-based learning.
  • Schools are increasingly leveraging community resources and partnerships. They are making school facilities accessible to the larger community after hours and extending learning beyond the school walls.

Thinking about the changing needs for the coming decade, how can schools keep up with emerging technologies? In what other ways do learning environments need to be adaptable?

Schools need to function as “high-performance” work environments, with varied spaces, flexible furniture, and strong technology infrastructure. Technology is ubiquitous, and more and more, we’re going to see content delivered through rich online platforms, with teachers facilitating discussion and synthesis of information. We’re moving away from the notion of computer labs — instead, every square inch of a school can be used to provide space for students to work with technology.

Another way schools can be adaptable is to create thoughtful adjacencies in which faculty (teachers, administrators, and support personnel) are co-located in thoughtful ways that promote small and personalized learning communities. I see some schools moving toward locating teachers and students not departmentally but across disciplines, which better suits problem-based, integrated learning.

You led the building design and construction for the first facilities in the High Tech High network of innovative charter schools. What are the most important things every school should consider when creating a 21st-century learning environment?

There are five main features that make High Tech High schools exciting places to be. They are what I consider must-haves:

  1. Varied spaces: schools should have flexible classrooms, small group meeting rooms, large group gathering spaces, and nooks for kids to work independently.
  2. Neighborhoods: create areas where teams of teachers and students are co-located to encourage collaborative, cross-disciplinary learning.
  3. Strong technology infrastructure, along with venues for students to work independently and in small groups using technology.
  4. Transparency: make the learning culture of the school highly visible and palpable. Open up views to and from classrooms, labs, offices, and meeting rooms.
  5. Exhibit space to curate and display student work throughout the building.

For educators who aren’t undertaking a new building or renovation project, are there low-budget ways they can make a space more supportive of the ways students learn today?

To create personalized experiences for students, we need to help them connect to the building and the people inside it. Some low- or no-budget ways to do this would be to:

  • Create or define a commons area that is the intellectual hub of the school. I often suggest schools use their cafeteria this way.
  • Design a welcoming entry experience that tells a story about your school’s values and mission and gives a sense of how to move around the building. That could include being greeted by a friendly adult or providing maps for easy wayfinding.
  • Allow students and teachers to transform their school environment. Ideas include public art projects, murals, or curating exhibitions.
  • Encourage community access after hours. Communities want to see schools as resources: a place to use a gym, a gathering space, or a venue for adult education, for example.
  • Promote transparency by uncovering windows into classrooms and offices, and consider leaving classroom doors open.
  • Change out classroom furniture when possible. Test different furniture types and configurations for flexibility and comfort.

You co-developed the Learning Environments for Tomorrow professional education program. What do you hope are the main takeaways for participants, both educators and architects?

Number one is inspiration. We’ll show a lot of creative examples and develop a library of images and resources. Participants will learn from best practices in the design of 21st-century school programs and facilities.

The second is being able to communicate effectively — often educators don’t feel comfortable speaking the language of design and vice versa. We’ll do some role switching so that educators become designers and designers become educators.

The last major takeaway is applying what they have learned to their home contexts. We shake up the groups and have them work on a studio project, so they don’t get bogged down in the details and limitations of their own particular project. At the same time, we give participants ample time to meet in their local teams to talk about how concepts apply what to they’re doing at home.

Photo: Students gather in the Commons Room of the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High school in San Diego, CA.

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