Spotlight on Collaborative Learning Spaces

Designing collaborative and flexible learning spaces is critical in today’s schools. Kimberly Bannigan, learning information systems coordinator at DeForest Area School District in DeForest, Wisc., knows this well. Bannigan participated in the process of designing a library in the district that promoted collaborative and flexible learning—and we spoke about the process, and other elements involved in creating a versatile learning space.

Q. What are some of the initial steps designers and staff must take in designing a flexible/collaborative space?

A. The first important step is to talk to the people who will be using the space, and hearing their vision of how it will be used. We had a design tea, inviting a cross-section of people who may use the space. There was also some student involvement.  Typically, when that is included, the spaces have proven to be more successful.

The design team included our construction company, building and grounds personnel, the architecture firm. In the last couple of years, it seems that libraries have been the main focus when remodeling buildings. After receiving feedback from a cross-section of people, we engaged a design team that specializes in libraries to see what is possible. We also looked outside of the district to see what is happening throughout the country.

Q. Were there any challenges that came up during the process, anything unique to the project?

A. Something can always go wrong, but when remodeling spaces, it is important to pay special attention to technology, things like lighting, electrical cabling. For instance, at one of our libraries, we thought the electrical capacity was higher. When we found out it was not, we had to find more resources.

Another challenge is that students will use spaces in ways you never envisioned. We used tiered seating in the design of one our libraries, they would climb up and over it.

Q. What are some of the greatest benefits students and staff get from such a space?

A. One of the biggest benefits is that one space can serve a variety of learning needs that can accommodate many students. We have a common design at one of our schools. Usually, these are built for students, but we found they can be used for professional meetings, staff development, and even for events for the community. The benefit of the flexibility is that you are not locked in.

Q. Was this the first collaborative space in your school? How has it been received?

A. We’ve gotten lots of feedback. We are still in the first year, so we are still learning about our spaces and exploring new uses. It has been very positive so far. It has shown us what we can do with limited resources and how important it is to be open to possibilities. Just installing new lighting in our middle school library made a big difference. We are proud we did it in a way that didn’t break the bank and maximized creativity.