Campus Design

4 Tips for Building Modern, Collaborative Learning Spaces

By Ashley Dikeos

Our elementary school opened its doors in 1923, which means our 100-year anniversary is right around the corner. The building has undergone changes, renovations and additions over the years, but we still found ourselves dealing with steep challenges on the road to creating a collaborative, modern learning space that students, teachers and staff could enjoy on a daily basis.

Working with our legislators—many of whom came to visit our facility in person—and our Fort Thomas Education Foundation, we were able to secure the approvals and funding needed to demolish our old buildings and construct a new one for the next 50 years and beyond.

4 Steps to Success

Working with our furniture partner, we selected a combination of desks and tables that are all on casters and easy to move. This would prove extremely beneficial during times when teachers open up the doors between their classrooms and work in larger groups. We also installed soft benches in its hallways to help encourage collaboration among students.

Our new library now includes a mix of traditional books, a makerspace, soft seating, and an inset couch that incorporates multiple tiered layers. Our librarian uses that “nook” to teach her K-2 students while those in grades 3-5 work at tables. In all, we have a wide variety of seating options across the new building that meets all of our students’ needs.

Here are four steps that we took to build a modern learning space:

  1. Start with a priority list. Start by coming up with a list of “must haves.” We took our wish list to our foundation and our Fort Thomas Board of Education; we told them that these were the things we either have in other schools that we don't have money for, or things that we would like. They then prioritized it from there based on the features of this building, knowing our vision of the nature landscape, the cool and calm colors, and the feeling of collaboration. They took all that information and—through a major team effort—discussed what steps we needed to take to get to where we’re at today.
  2. Focus on collaboration. The classrooms of 1923 did not have an inviting, collaborative feel, but our new vision is steeped in a “work-together” environment focused on collaboration. We added “social steps” (a large staircase where students or classes can gather); large, soundproof doors that can be opened and used to combine classrooms; and portable technology that can be repositioned to accommodate different group sizes and functions. We work together in groups a lot and have been able to continue that through the pandemic—all while following COVID protocols.
  3. Come up with a theme. When it came to selecting specific pieces of furniture, our partner, MiEN Company, took the time to learn the school’s vision and to find colors, pieces and textures that fit well with its overall mission. Our design partner also made some specific furniture pieces (e.g., a kidney-shaped table for smaller spaces) and incorporated natural materials like wood and stone to create a “national parks feel.”
  4. Support the doers, makers and hands-on learners. Today’s students want to be hands-on and learn by doing, and that’s exactly what our new building is allowing them to do in a very comfortable, inviting and engaging manner. When you get into the working world, you have to work with many different people. You have to work in teams, you have to know how to work together, and everybody works differently. When you create a space that is inviting and welcoming for students to come in, put their best foot forward and want to work together in teams, the environment only helps to foster that.

Ultimately, my biggest goal is for kids and teachers to come through the doors of this school every day and say to themselves, “I love it here.” As a principal, it’s my job to help create that environment. This relates directly to our school’s culture, mission and vision, and it’s about making sure that kids are prepared and have what they need— from the new building and its incredible engaging spaces, to the academic learning they get in the classroom, to their hands-on experience, and everything in between.

Ashley Dikeos is Principal at Robert D. Johnson Elementary School in Fort Thomas, Ky.