The Social Studies Classroom of Tomorrow

A social studies teacher who was near retirement showed up at one of my educational planning sessions for a new classroom building. I asked him about the social studies classroom of the future. At first he hemmed and hawed, but after some prodding, he said, “Do you really want to know what I think?”

I was all ears.

Image

Taking the next step in the evolution of classroom design requires the insights of those who know students best: the teachers.

World Connections, Kitchen Table Comfort

The first thing that teacher said would impact his educational space would be a much more hands-on educational model. Watch this video from UT Austin CTL for a primer on the flipped classroom:

Bob explained that tomorrow’s social studies classroom should be a much more flexible setting akin to a CNN studio. When students walk in, flat screens and electronic ticker tape show them what’s happening around the world. If students type any date into an iPad, the screens shift to summarize what happened then. There are places for independent study, and places for group presentation and real-time video mentoring.

Image

A kitchen table setting that encourages project-based learning.

Another area for the room focuses on project-based learning. Mobile devices meet old-fashioned tools like glue, tape, and scissors as students create projects based on subject matter. This environment, in which it’s okay to make a mistake, combines future technologies with the kitchen table-like comfort of the past.

No other teachers showed that afternoon. However, the twenty minutes that I spent with that social studies teacher turned out to be critical for planning for that district. His insights revealed that in the social studies classroom of tomorrow, students are connected to their world the moment that they walk into the room.

The Path to Insights

No matter what point they are in their careers, teachers have the knowledge that educational programmers need to evolve the classroom space. Sometimes, extracting that knowledge is tough, but as the above story shows, it’s worth the effort.

Educational programming, whether it involves an informal discussion with one teacher or a design charette with an entire community, sometimes takes asking the same question over and over, perhaps framing it in different ways.

Your Favorite Place to Learn? Probably Not a Classroom

I have a good friend who is a college professor. She wanted to take advantage of her students’ love of ubiquitous technology and change how they received information. She had been teaching the same class for several years and thought that she was not engaging with students like she hoped she could.

The verdict is in: today’s students prefer group-based activities over the traditional lecture format. Photo copyright Truckee Meadows Community College through Creative Commons.

The verdict is in: today’s students prefer group-based activities over the traditional lecture format. Photo copyright Truckee Meadows Community College through Creative Commons.

After much trepidation and preparation, she started an experiment with one of her private college classes: she “flipped” the curriculum. Students were provided videos of lectures, research, and reading assignments to complete prior to getting to class. When they arrived, they found that the standard lecture format was out. Instead, they were immersed in group-based activities, discussion groups, and problem solving. Some were even asked to lead discussions amongst their peers. The in-class activities were an opportunity to apply what was absorbed through their out-of-classroom assignments.

The excitement of trying something new carried student morale at a high level for the first semester. All were engaged in the active learning process and performance on finals proved the professor’s suspicion that this model was indeed working well.

However, upon return from winter break, the professor surveyed the class. Students noted that they were a bit jarred by this new approach. One student asked, “Aren’t we paying you to teach?  Why are we working in groups to learn from each other if we came to learn from you?”

In response, the professor reverted back to the traditional lecture format with the same cohort. After all, it was a lot of work for her to facilitate learning in the new model. Two weeks into the spring semester, the same student stated, “Hang on. We are here and participating but it is harder to understand some of the information, and we don’t look forward to class like we did last semester.” Others chimed in that the experimental semester was more work, but that the material was easier to absorb and recall. They preferred the more interactive model. So my friend went back to the flipped curriculum model with an active learning classroom. It was the first ever flipped curriculum on this small college campus. She hasn’t looked back since!

This story illustrates the resistance to and effectiveness of concepts like the flipped classroom, which reverses the typical pedagogical model by having students absorb the lesson (via video or text) at home, then come into school the next day to apply that knowledge with their peers.

I believe that my acquaintance’s students, accustomed to just sitting there while a teacher lectured, weren’t fully engaged in the learning experience. Her experiment opened their eyes to a methodology that makes learning less about seeking information, and more about applying it.

Great story….but how does this impact the classroom?

From Factory to Stage

I’ve asked many architects and educators to describe their favorite place to learn. Though the responses have been quite diverse, there is one space that none of them has named: the classroom!

The new classroom adapts to group efforts with a variety of configurations.

The new classroom adapts to group efforts with a variety of configurations.

We Baby Boomers and Gen Xers grew up with a factory model classroom based on efficiency and lectures rather than on flexibility and interaction. The rooms were designed so light came in over the student’s left shoulder and everyone was packed in rows.

That scenario does not accommodate today’s students, who’ve grown up with unlimited information just a couple mouse clicks away. “The new classroom focuses less on students taking in information, and more on what to do with that information,” says Sylvia Kowalk, senior interior design at Legat Architects. “It’s less about individual performance, and more about group efforts for inquiry-based, project-based, and work-based formats.”

Here are a few skills that today’s students have to master to compete effectively in a global environment:

  • Guidance/coaching
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Innovation
  • IT/media literacy
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Leadership
  • Global sensitivities

If we as architects and interior designers are to develop educational settings that truly help instructors teach these skills, then we have to reexamine the traditional classroom design. Students shouldn’t be stifled in that factory model. They should thrive in an environment that is as flexible and exciting as a Broadway stage.

 

Where Two Paths Meet: Five Ways to Create Learning Opportunities at Corridor Intersections

Every school has areas where two or more corridors meet. However, is that circulation intersection just another place to pass through between classes? Or does it reinforce the school’s mission by providing a provocative educational experience? Walls, technology, and even ceilings can spark curiosity and incite learning.

Following are a few ways to build interest where two path meet:

Corridor_Display_Legat_Architects

Display

Exhibit three-dimensional science projects and artwork to entice learners to participate, or create grade level themed exhibits that promote group activities.

MRY_Trier-Boards.indd

Natural and Artificial Lighting

Contrasting levels and colors of light can accent intersections and encourage curiosity. Natural lighting through light tubes and skylights enhances productivity and wellness even at intersections. 

Corridor_Feature_Wall_Legat_Architects

Color and Texture Studies

Something as simple as paint color and pattern can stimulate interest. Find opportunities to integrate natural textures and fibers to enliven and enrich the learning environment.

Corridor_Technology_Legat_Architects

Technology Screens

What is the latest international news? How much renewable energy is a facility generating? What time does the chess club meet? Electronic media can deliver answers to these and many other questions to monitors at intersections. Staying current with the latest technology sets an example for students and prepares them for higher education.

Corridor_Mural_Legat_Architects

Collage of Visual Arts

Exhibit 2D visual art examples to encourage curiosity in programs and to enliven the circulation experience. Weekly or monthly rotations stimulate visual learners and surprise educators with the talent within their school.

A Shared Interlude: Between the Walls

Where the educational curriculum is headed is impossible to predict, but take heart: an intelligently designed school can adapt to the curricular changes that are sure to come.

Meeting and breakout rooms between classrooms enable schools to prepare for curricular changes.

Meeting and breakout rooms between classrooms enable schools to prepare for curricular changes.

In my last post, I discussed the importance of walls in creating vibrant, curriculum-focused learning environments. This time, I’d like to take it one step further by asking an important question: what’s happening between the walls?

The walls between classrooms present another opportunity to promote flexibility. For example, a shared meeting room between two classrooms can open to a foyer entry.

Flexible, technology-embedded walls between classrooms enable a variety of learning arrangements.

Flexible, technology-embedded walls between classrooms enable a variety of learning arrangements.

Some possibilities for furniture and wall configurations with technology include:

  • Option 1: What if an auto executive visits the school for 30 minutes to talk about hybrid and electric cars? Both walls can open so that two classes benefit from the visit
  • Option 2: What if a student in China Skypes in and a small group from another subject wants to join in? One wall opens to the class for collaboration.
  • Option 3: What if a small group needs space to build a model project? Both walls are closed to create small group learning environments.
  • Option 4: What if in the next period, the small group members presents their project to the class? One wall opens to provide viewing of the project.

We cannot predict the future, but by designing adaptable solutions, we can be prepared to change the learning setting as changes in curriculum delivery arise.

What If Walls Could Teach?

We can’t predict the future, and we can’t predict the curriculum that schools will teach in 5 years, let alone 50 years or 250 years (the expected life of current educational construction). However, we can prepare for the future by building for adaptability and change.

The next couple of blog posts will offer a few tips to achieve learning settings that are prepared for the fluid and ever-changing nature of curriculum delivery.

Observation windows along the corridor build curiosity about subject matter.

Observation windows along the corridor build curiosity about subject matter.

For too long, students have zipped by uninspiring entries and trudged down dull corridors on the way from one class to another. However, these spaces offer an opportunity to gear up for those curricular changes.

It starts with walls. Think about all the potential benefits that walls offer: showcase student achievement, build excitement about learning, display technology, and reinforce a school’s commitment to sustainability.

A concept for the New Trier High School design competition advises a “kit of parts” in which walls promote flexibility, and allow for a variety of settings. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell

A concept for the New Trier High School design competition advises a “kit of parts” in which walls promote flexibility, and allow for a variety of settings. Image courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell

Here are a few ways that walls can help schools prepare for change:

  • Exhibit niches display student projects and accomplishments.
  • Technology screens keep students aware of what’s happening in their school, in their communities, and in the world at large.
  • Recessed seating offers a way to break away from fellow students while remaining connected to the school at large.
  • Color accent walls draw attention to the instructor and create a more vibrant classroom atmosphere
  • Observation windows entice passersby to look in on classroom or lab activities. “That looks like fun. Perhaps I should take that course next semester.”
  • Interior living planted walls teeming with vegetation create a natural connection, and help filter indoor air.

LEED Students and Community Leadership: The Living Learning Laboratory

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification has become an industry standard for energy-efficient and environmentally-respectful buildings. But what about creating a standard for LEED students?

This concept for New Trier High School’s (Winnetka, IL) design competition includes rooftop gardens and Living Learning Laboratories that encourage sustainable leadership. Rendering courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

This concept for New Trier High School’s (Winnetka, IL) design competition includes rooftop gardens and Living Learning Laboratories that encourage sustainable leadership. Rendering courtesy Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell.

I encourage schools to create spaces—call them Living Learning Laboratories—that immerse students in sustainable concepts. These spaces showcase tools and technologies that inspire students to think about their environment, and about how each decision they make and each action they take affects their world.

Hubble_MS_Library_Legat_Architects

Sustainability has become a strong part of the culture at the LEED for Schools Gold certified Hubble Middle School. Students participate in “Eco-fairs,” and lead tours that highlight the school’s energy-saving features.

Higher education institutions are leading the way. K-12 schools and especially high schools, in their quest to create collegiate environments, have an opportunity to show community sustainable leadership and reach new standards. They can start by choosing one room or region of the school to achieve energy independence and pursue the “Petals” of the Living Building Challenge. For instance, a small sustainability laboratory on a roof garden can be a model that houses the latest in high-performance technology and enables students to measure its impact on energy expenditures.

Preservation and Progression: The Established High School and the Engaged Student

What does the future of educational architecture hold? How can high schools with cherished traditions and dated facilities adapt to the motivations, communication preferences, and technological savvy of today’s students? These are questions that Legat Architects and Moore Ruble Yudell considered when we developed a design competition concept for the prestigious New Trier High School (Winnetka, Illinois). Here’s a video that summarizes the concept:

The concept emphasizes the facility’s role in extending New Trier High School’s reputation for academic excellence into the next 100 years. It emphasizes the integration of natural resources for efficiency and education. The concept also respects different learning preferences, and stresses adaptability for teaching methods. Note how the renderings offer zones for performance, collaboration, and independence to suit a variety of students.

The next step in this process involves engaging with the New Trier community to fully understand its needs, then working on a collaborative solution that transforms purpose into place.

Transforming Purpose into Place: Student Differences Should Influence Design

How do we transform purpose into place? This question fuels the future of educational design. The answer requires identifying the many motivations and learning preferences that students have, and then shaping space accordingly. Following are a few examples.

Nooks and private zones are ideal for students who prefer a quiet place to focus.

Nooks and private zones are ideal for students who prefer a quiet place to focus.

Some students prefer a quiet place where they can break away and read or study. Nooks and pull-out areas off the corridor can work well. Or, smaller cafés and overlooks within the library enable observation without full participation.

The place to see and be seen. How can K-12 spaces respond to natural performers? Prominent stairs are one possibility.

The place to see and be seen. How can K-12 spaces respond to natural performers? Prominent stairs are one possibility.

Other students are much more extroverted. They prefer the spotlight and want to be where the action is. They gravitate toward highly visible spaces like performance courts and open stair areas. A well-designed atrium can showcase places where these students can play instruments, perform one-act plays, or deliver speeches.

Living labs encourage exploration of environmental issues.

Living labs encourage exploration of environmental issues.

A third type of student might feel a drive to care for the environment. Spaces like living laboratories can encourage exploration and environmental responsibility. These labs showcase student projects and energy-efficient equipment. Rooftop gardens and greenhouses can augment the experience.

These are just a few examples of how spaces can respond to student differences.

A Multi-sensory Supplement: The Outdoor Classroom

Textbooks, lectures, video, Internet. These are all critical classroom instructional tools. However, outdoor classrooms offer another set of more direct tools.

The outdoor classroom supports inquiry-based learning and experimental teaching methods that can engage students in the process, as well as the outcomes.

Outdoor learning environments can strengthen neighborhoods, and blur the boundaries between academic learning and creative curiosity. Photo courtesy ED lab INC.

Outdoor learning environments can strengthen neighborhoods, and blur the boundaries between academic learning and creative curiosity. Photo courtesy ED lab INC.

A multi-sensory outdoor experience can inspire learning, supplement indoor lessons, and connect with those that may not thrive in a traditional classroom. Consider a lesson on coniferous trees. Inside, students get lessons ranging from life cycle to weather response and trunk composition. But when they go outside and explore a live pine tree, they experience additional layers of meaning to enrich the lesson: touching its bark, smelling its needles, listening to the birds in its branches, seeing its sap.

Outdoor learning also lends itself to interdisciplinary studies. For example, a photography class takes pictures of an outdoor learning environment to study how seasonal changes affect lighting. Meanwhile, biology students analyze the impacts of sun and shade on vegetation.

E.O. Wilson’s “Biophilia Hypothesis” suggests that we all have a deeply-rooted drive to connect with nature. As a mini-ecosystem, the outdoor classroom helps students grasp the complex natural systems that often require holistic rather than linear solutions.

Vessels of Transformation: Educational Settings and Interaction

I started playing volleyball in junior high. Often, I practiced with girls who were older and better than me. That turned out to be excellent training: I made the high school volleyball team, and as a sophomore, I competed at the varsity level.

A media center addition at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Palos Hills, Illinois offers a group learning area with movable tables so instructors can change the setting based on activities.  Glass pockets in the façade create light-filled small group areas.

A media center addition at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Palos Hills, Illinois offers a group learning area with movable tables so instructors can change the setting based on activities.
Glass pockets in the façade create light-filled small group areas.

Gaining skills by working with others (especially those who are more adept at a particular task) also benefits students. To succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, today’s students have to master skills like creativity, critical thinking, and communication. Authentic transactions are at the root of these skills, and the physical environment can help promote this kind of collaborative learning.

Dormant No More
Now is the time to change our view of educational environments. School spaces have the potential to become vessels of transformation where students can engage in new experiences, construct identities, explore their world, and collaborate in authentic scenarios.

Flexible furnishings coupled with breakout spaces help teachers promote interaction, and accommodate different learning preferences. Accented teaching walls and movable partitions within the classroom enhance focus and stimulate excitement about learning.

Hallway alcoves, intersections, cafeterias, and media centers can extend learning outside the classroom. Small group gathering places and adaptable furniture allow for impromptu discussions. Planning for natural light and project space enhances the frequency of use and quality of learning.