Thursday, January 12, 2012

Learning Environments for the 21st Century

The first time I was ever asked to give input into the design of a school was when I was in Amsterdam and the school was moving to a brand new campus.  Teachers were able to look at 3 different models and eventually were able to give input into which building they thought best fit their needs.  Once an architect had been chosen we met with the architect and gave a wish list of what we wanted.  This included things like having all the classrooms of a particular grade arranged around a common area, and having the whole school build around an inner courtyard/garden that could be used as an outdoor learning space.  I have to say the finished building was absolutely wonderful and it was a joy to teach in such a well designed space.

In Chapter 6 of the book 21st Century Skills of Bob Pearlman writes about the three ways students work: they use computers, they talk with other students and they make things - and these require different learning environments:  a focused work environment, a collaborative work environment and a hand-on project work environment.  In new schools, or schools that have been redesigned, students don't work in "classrooms" anymore.  They work in studios, plazas and home bases - in fact they can work anywhere as 21st century schools are involved in project-based learning using mobile devices on a wireless network.  Wireless internet has meant that all school spaces are now learning areas.

My school in Thailand had a 1:1 tablet programme in 2005, and it was interesting to see students working everywhere - in the corridors, on the steps of the gym, in little wooden huts outside in the play areas.  Most of the time these students were working in groups, collaborating with others using their tablets to research their projects and to construct knowledge.  They continued to use their tablets to show their understanding by making movies, models, podcasts, websites and so on, and published these on their digital portfolios.

During the time I was in Thailand, my school was constantly being rebuilt.  There was a new gym, a new creative arts building, a new early years centre, a new high school building, a new library and a complete redesign of the elementary school by knocking down all the interior walls and then thinking about how this new space could be best used.  When I arrived at the school, the Year 1s were just having a new floor added onto the top of the Early Years centre - these were all open classrooms with no doors between them and completely open access to a central area.  In this area was also a special space for music and for art.

At the end of my first year at school the IT department took over the old music classrooms, knocked down all the walls turned them into 3 areas with glass between them.  We actually couldn't do as much remodeling as I'd wanted because we knew that the entire building was going to be completely gutted within a couple of years, but we did turn an empty corridor into a place where students could drop in and use the desktop computers that we put there.  When the carts of laptops were introduced to the primary classes, students had a lot of choice about where to use them.  Some wanted to sit at a desk, others preferred to sit on cushions on the floor.  I'm not sure what happened with the furniture when the school was redesigned (I'd left by then), but I'm sure that these new spaces would have had more flexible furniture that could be grouped in many different ways.

What I'm seeing when I read about schools that are redesigning their learning spaces is that there are spaces for individuals to work, for small groups and also for large groups - that these areas are often very flexible with moveable walls.  I'm excited about the idea of moving to such a school - about the idea that architects are listening to what students and teachers want so that they can design the best spaces for them to learn in.

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