Bringing 20th Century Education into the 21st Century: Why Technology, Flexible Learning Spaces and Maximizing Real Estate Are Becoming Non-Negotiables for Modern Schools

One of the fundamental challenges in education is trying to fit 21st-century learning environments into 20th century buildings to support an ongoing evolution in teaching. Unfortunately, the majority of legacy facilities were designed around traditional pedagogical approaches that have now become outmoded.

Too many kids are sitting in old furniture, in much the same setup as in the early 1900s, with rows facing forward and the teacher at the front. However, as we expand our concepts of learning, we must enable students to generate new ideas they potentially wouldn’t have been inspired to come up with when taught in an “old school” classroom. It’s an idea that architects and interior solutions providers are actively implementing to help change the design of our schools for the better.

Technology Integration

Fifteen years ago, “technology” in the classroom meant a projector and a not-user-friendly screen. But that required turning off the lights and closing the window shades and generally lugging a big machine through narrow aisles cluttered with backpacks. Students were then sitting in a dark room, disconnected from the teacher and each other, and even falling asleep—not the optimal way to learn.

The introduction of the flat screen to classrooms has been a game changer. No more wasted time turning off the lights and more student engagement.

We now do our best to inform teachers that they have options! The classroom is not a one-size-fits-all solution. They have the ability to move to a pedagogy that better supports their teaching style and student learning. He or she often still has their own space in a corner but may work from a mobile pedestal at the center of the room. In this set up, the media is triangulated throughout the space using three screens that can be viewed from any angle in the room. The teacher is also able to move freely throughout the space, creating a room with no “good” or “bad” seat in order to help fully engage all the students.

Technology offers a multitude of benefits, but it’s important to maintain a balance between the digital and the analog to accommodate different learning styles. There may be a digital platform, where information is being shared on screens collectively and on personal devices like tablets. But there is still a role for learning in an analog mode as well. For example, a student may prefer to use pen and paper to take notes and make lists, even using colors to organize information and stimulate memory.

The important thing is teachers do not have to choose between one or the other, digital or analog, there are concepts that can blend the two. A student or a group might take handwritten notes, then use a wireless connection from a tablet or computer to share them with the class for presentation and discussion. The result is a combination of personal note taking for later reference with a technology that enables collaboration.

Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration

Everybody's talking about collaboration, but the reality is that we were “collaborating” before it was a buzzword. At its most basic, it's shared communication. It's talking in small groups. It's brainstorming ideas together.

But in a traditional classroom setup, students sit in forward-facing rows reminiscent of people working on assembly lines. Sit facing forward, get your instructions, and do your heads-down work.

We noticed that other countries were zooming past us in education, in the things they were learning and creating. We noticed that many schools were encouraging students to work in groups and many American schools began practicing that approach and integrating this new way of learning into their spaces. However, the furniture didn't support that style, and teachers were losing time in transitioning their classrooms set ups from heads-down, focused work to collaborative work. With innovations in furniture design, that is no longer the case.

Collaboration is here to stay. We're seeing it enthusiastically embraced in the workforce, so we must teach our children how to operate in that kind of environment early on. How to work in small pods of three to five or six kids. When to talk and when not to talk. How to take in everyone's feedback and turn it into one collaborative idea, and how to effectively balance work.

Here’s Your Hall Pass

Encouraging collaboration in the design of education spaces can also occur beyond the classroom. Under the right circumstances, hallways can incorporate collaboration spaces that are outside the teacher-student hierarchy as a place where students can think freely and creatively.

For years, hallways were simply a way to get from one room to another. In recent years, many in our industry have been working on ways to reignite those hallways and make them destinations in themselves. Hallways have proven to be an effective area for impromptu conversations that lead to spontaneous ideas.

When students step into classrooms, they step into the thought process of the teacher who guides them from one concept to another. In the hallways, they can engage in a more casual thought process with their peers without the formality of the conventional classroom. Lounge furniture, whiteboards, mobile glass boards, and access to power and comfort are elements for transforming hallways for activate student learning.

However, it’s been a challenge to create spaces in hallways that students will use and that teachers will allow them to use during down time. These spaces must be in the line of sight for the teachers, and they need to provide the tools that allow the students to process their thoughts and ideas.

Yet, when executed appropriately, there’s a bottom-line incentive as well. Hallways can nearly double the usable space on campus. With the cost of real estate today, especially in states like California, spaces need to work harder and every space needs to have a dual function.

Bringing the Inside In

Biophilia: the idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

Biophilic design: incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the modern built environment.

There have been many studies that show a strong connection to nature can enhance student development. That’s especially critical in a time when children are so caught up in an electronic world and losing exposure to the outdoors. Knowing that their attention capacity is restored when they're in contact with nature, we need to do as much as we can to pull nature back into their world.

We’ve seen a major trend in bringing the outdoors to the indoors in education. Childhood experience with nature is known to support developmental processes of adolescence and increase children’s physical and mental health, as well as their skills in multiple domains. Contact with nature also helps form an emotional bond with wildlife, to develop environmental sensitivity and behavior in adolescents.

Laguna Beach Unified School District, in southern California, conducted a study to determine what would be the best plant for a classroom. What they found was that the snake plant, also called Mother-In-Law's Tongue, provided the most oxygen to the room. It was also the easiest to care for and required the least amount of attention throughout the year.

However, it doesn't have to be potted plants or a live wall to capture nature. Even just photos of the natural world or fabrics with leaves and flowers can be almost as equally effective.

Additionally, some schools are forward thinking enough to design the building in the first place to encourage the use of the outdoors. For example, garage doors can turn two rooms into one, but they can also allow a classroom to open to a courtyard for students to spread out in group activities and use the outdoors as a breakout space. Other techniques in terms of facility design include changing windows to clear glass rather than translucent, clouded, or patterned materials. And some schools go all in by building their facility out of raw natural material

Training for Success

It’s probably no surprise that newer teachers are often open to these new ideas. In fact, they may be recent college graduates who had access to active learning spaces throughout their education. They've also likely been exposed to increased collaboration as it has come to the forefront in the last 10 years or so.

That’s not to say that teachers of other generations aren’t amenable to or advocates of this change as well. Oftentimes, when they experience our mock-up classroom for a few weeks, we receive overwhelming positive feedback from teachers that have been given a chance to test out the new furniture.

But new classroom furniture alone is the not answer. Teachers and students must be trained in how to use it as a resource that supports learning. For example, a classroom may be outfitted with tables, desks and chairs of different heights. Some students may be standing, some sitting on chairs, some sitting on the floor, some at individual desks. The problem lies in not actively incorporating the furniture into lesson plans and activities that also allow the students to shift among those arrangements and not get stuck in one for the entire classroom period.

There is nothing worse than a school outfitting a new classroom, but the teacher adhering to the same format as they did before. It’s imperative that teachers have access to professional development on how to change their curriculum and style to support many pedagogies throughout a school day. That may seem intimidating at first, when students are more engaged throughout the day, the results shine through and teachers gravitate to this shift.

Training faculty can take several forms. It is typically done one-on-one or even by word of mouth. A forward-thinking principal may assemble the teachers for a lunch-and-learn with the provider for demonstrations of the products, how they function, different kinds of setups and ways a classroom can be organized to support whatever subject they're teaching.

Another approach is to provide loaner products for two weeks prior to shipment. Teachers can then replace their old classroom furniture with examples of the new items for a hands-on experience. We then visit on the first day the product has been delivered and teach the teachers how to use the furniture most productively.

Change is coming to our schools. Learning can take place everywhere, and it’s our job to work with architects, designers, teachers and administrators to help provide feedback on the best ways to invest in and change the future of learning to positively impact the ways our children are learning and teaching one another.