A/V Technology

Transforming Classrooms into Active Learning Environments

Q&A with a School Principal

Mark Hess is currently the principal at Mary Helen Guest Elementary School in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District in Walled Lake, Mich. Hess has served in a variety of roles since he was hired by the district in 1993, including executive director of instruction, technology, and assessment, director of technology and data analysis, middle school principal, assistant principal, middle school teacher, and elementary school teacher. As principal, he recently led the school through a new remodel that included transforming classrooms into active learning environments.

teacher pointing at computer screen in front of student 


How did the idea to transform each classroom into an active learning environment come about?

This remodel actually started about six years ago when the district standardized classroom technology. The second part of the process was updating classroom learning spaces and modernizing school buildings so the learning environment harmonized with the updated technology. Before we started to look at options for new furniture and products, it was important for us to identify what we wanted to accomplish. We asked ourselves, “What should a classroom look like in order to maximize teaching and learning opportunities for all students?” Our goal was to give teachers more flexibility and address different learning styles.

Our district did extensive research when determining what direction to go in for the renovations, including attending school furniture design conferences, visiting neighboring districts, and deepening our knowledge base through literature and journals. We also provided opportunities for educators to test different options and provide feedback on what they thought would be best.

Ultimately, we decided to go with the flexible learning environments to best address the different learning styles among students. Not every student learns from a desk, and not all teachers teach best from their desks. We saw how technology transformed our approach to instruction, and it was time to have furniture that integrates and supports this transformation.

In your opinion, how have you seen these environments support teaching and learning at your school?

My biggest takeaway I have noticed is the furniture is no longer stagnant. What I see in a classroom at 10 a.m. might have a completely different look and feel than when I visit at 2 p.m. Classrooms are much more mobile and can easily be adjusted throughout the day to align with the teacher’s instruction. Teachers can have the class set up to do whole group instruction in the morning, and by the afternoon, students are working in cooperative groups. The physical layout of the room changes in a matter of minutes.

This has really allowed us to be able to break down physical barriers in the classroom. With a much more open concept and comfortable learning environment, teachers are spending less time at the front of the room and more time around the learning space.

Can you tell us about the technology in each classroom, and give a couple examples of how teachers & students might use it on a day-to-day basis?

We provide Chromebooks for all of our students, but we also have a BYOD program. Each classroom is set up with Epson BrightLink interactive displays, Epson document cameras, and FrontRow Speakers. Some of the key programs that ground our curriculum include i-Ready assessment and personalized instruction, Google Classroom, and SAFARI Montage. Teachers can easily share content to students’ devices, and students can be on their device anywhere accessing the lesson or activity.

When teachers want to display content at the front of class, but also walk around and help students, they can use the Microsoft display adapter dongle and wirelessly project from their laptop to the Epson BrightLink display. This has been helpful for teachers, since they are no longer feeling tied to their desk or computer to monitor the content students are working on. Instead, they are able to walk around and interact with students and provide feedback in real time as students are working. Having this interactive whiteboard space is also great to have students easily go up and annotate directly on the content.

Can you give an outline of the project's timeline?

Six years ago, a bond passed in the district that was made up of two main parts: technology and furniture. The district standardized its technology throughout the district as the first part, and the second part was focused on remodeling the schools and updating furniture.

With 19 school buildings in the district, the remodel was divided into four phases so not every building was updated all at the same time. My school building’s turn to complete its remodel was set for the summer of 2021. The time leading up to it we spent doing the research, planning and scheduling so that when it was time for implementing the renovation in the summer, everything could run as smoothly as possible.

Do you have any advice on how to prepare teachers for this type of space?

For district leaders looking to update classrooms, start with the why and then build it out from there. When determining this, be sure to involve teachers and students and focus on what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s common for people to want to get the products first and then start the conversations about plans for using the new products. The purchasing process will be a lot easier if you already have in mind what it is that teachers want, and it will make it a smoother process of preparing teachers to teach in these new environments once classrooms are updated.

For principals that just had classrooms updated, encourage teachers to get creative. We had a professional development day at the beginning of the school year and provided teachers opportunities to catch their breath, meet with colleagues, and discuss what was working and what wasn’t working. This was a great opportunity to get everyone together so they could bounce ideas off of each other and answer each other’s questions.

Ultimately, teachers need the time to discuss, collaborate, take risks, and adjust to new learning environments. As the principal, it is important for me to find the time for teachers to collaborate and for me to check in with teachers periodically to see if they have any questions or new ideas that I can share with all. Both are great ways to remind teachers that their colleagues are available to provide support.

What are some of the best practices that you've seen teachers use to maximize opportunities for student engagement?

Teachers are really getting a hang of the idea that everything new in their classrooms was designed with instruction in mind. For example, when a lesson calls for cooperative learning, students can quickly create a learning space that is most conducive to their preferred design. Earlier this year, I observed a group of six students in a fourth-grade classroom working on a science experiment around soil erosion. Two students were using the floor-level lap desk, two students sat at the round sushi table, and two were taking part in the activity using the standing desks. Students tend to be more engaged and ready to participate when learning in an environment comfortable and suitable to their preference.

Another example is our small group annex pod where a group of eight students sit in a semi-circle around a shared 60-inch interactive display. Again, the level of engagement and participation increases in this pod format as students and teacher have a more intimate space to delve into a subject matter.

How can the creativity sparked in an active learning environment take root outside of the classroom?

With classrooms being such flexible learning environments, I think it has helped teachers really think outside the box and beyond the traditional learning environment. Teachers are feeling less restricted to just using classroom space and are finding ways that different settings can benefit specific lessons.

For example, a couple of our science teachers wanted an outdoor science education area to teach subjects like agriculture and earth science. Capturing some adjacent land on school grounds, we quickly transformed the space into an outdoor science hub where students could conduct experiments and observations. Learning can happen anywhere, and teachers are really grasping on to that idea as they are creating new lessons.

Were there any difficulties during the installation process?

As many can imagine and also relate to in 2021, timing and supply issues were our biggest concerns. There were shipping delays for some of the furniture and some of the technology, such as display monitors and AV equipment, and items were still arriving at the beginning of the school year. Issues with shortages of workers and contractors was another issue we dealt with, but we were able to adapt.

All of our difficulties were things out of our control, so no one could get too frustrated about things arriving later than anticipated. We were 80 percent complete at the start of the school year when we initially planned to be finished, but a few things were still being installed and completed as the school year started.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from students & teachers?

Of course, there were the initial “oohs” and “ahs” and initial excitement among everyone seeing the brand-new classrooms and furniture. Early feedback from teachers was mostly about the appreciation for having more flexibility. They liked how it was easier for small groups to get together, to utilize floor space, or to not need a “front” of the classroom. Now, with this more flexible setting, teachers are seeing an increase in student engagement and easily finding ways to encourage students to participate.

Students are feeling more comfortable in the classroom versus when they were sitting on a chair at a desk. They can be sitting, kneeling, laying down, leaning on the wall, basically being positioned any way they are comfortable. That’s how they’re learning at home, and we’ve been able to create that extension to help students feel more at ease when learning at school too.

Having the new furniture has been great, but it’s not just about the physical furniture. Teachers and staff have really come together to create such a safe, motivating, and positive learning environment for students.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.