[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on February 2nd of this year, was our #5 most popular story of the year. Happy holidays, and thank you for tuning into our 2017 countdown!]

The U.S. Department of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education had already recognized our schools in Kildeer Countryside Community Consolidated School District 96 in southern Lake County, Illinois, for academic excellence. Still, our district administrators recognized several years ago that significant changes needed to be made to our classrooms, and better technology needed to be acquired, in order to help our students develop the skills mandated by today’s educational standards including effective communication and collaboration.

To that end, we turned our attention to rethinking and redesigning our classroom learning spaces to fit the 21st century needs of our students.

Asking the Right Questions, First

We started by asking ourselves an essential question: “What does 21st century learning in a classroom look and sound like in a district committed to high levels of learning for all students?”

Students aren’t the only important component in the equation—we had to focus on teacher and technology needs, too. We also asked “What would teachers have to know and be able to do in order for students to think and interact in new ways?” And if we turned the tables and we were observing students in a cutting-edge learning environment, what would we see and hear?  And in what ways would technology be a catalyst or support for this type of engaged, forward-looking teaching and learning?

We knew we had obstacles to overcome: heavy furniture, the inability to collaborate with multimedia tools, students in rows led from the front of the classroom, and even more compelling, there was an obvious lack of what we called a differentiated learning atmosphere.

Taking Learning Walks

Once we acknowledged our obstacles, we really stepped into high gear.  We took teachers, administrators and school board members to other districts for learning walks. We formed a committee of these stakeholders as well as community members to evaluate our needs. We met with our technology team to plan and design multimedia infrastructure and as well as expected best practices. Then we gathered feedback from all parties and redesigned future classroom learning spaces using this compiled data.

Our data in year one showed that 1.) Teachers love lots (LOTS!) of board space; 2.) Students collaborate in a multimedia environment throughout the classrooms and 3.) Mobile furniture maximizes group flexibility and minimizes the loss of instructional time.

So now that the past has met the present, here’s what else we learned:

(Next page: 5 critical lessons learning redesigning learning spaces)

1. Slow and Steady Does Win the Race.

Or as we say ‘phase in, don’t rush in.’ When we began phasing in a 1:1 iPad program at Woodlawn Middle School and Twin Groves Middle School we noticed that traditional classroom learning spaces really didn’t provide the environment and flexibility needed for success with integrating 1:1 technology. Whether we set desks up in traditional rows or arranged them in mini-pods, it was difficult for kids to maneuver, share information, and collaborate with each other. So in an effort to create a freer environment, the district phased in reconfigured classrooms. During one school year, 10 classrooms were redesigned–five rooms in each of the two middle schools. We tore down to the stud walls and redesigned from there. The following summer, the district completed renovations on 22 more classrooms, concentrating on our schools’ math and language arts classrooms.

The new science room.

2. Know the Company You Keep—From Resellers to Technology Partners

We had previously worked with Fathom Media, a reseller whose specialty is serving as audiovisual integrator and partner. Drawing on its vast industry network and expertise, they presented Boxlight’s MimioProjector touch projectors as the best option for what the district was trying to accomplish. That’s what partnering is about: bringing about optimal execution of goals! We replaced our interactive projectors with the touch projectors, which turn conventional dry erase boards into touch boards. Teachers and students can use their hands on those touch boards, instead of depending on styli, and you can have up to 10 touches at once. So, more than one student can interact with the board at any given time, which is really one of the coolest features.

3. What Goes Around, Comes Around.

In Woodlawn’s newly-configured classrooms, there is 270-degree visual surround, with two walls bearing 65-inch televisions in addition to Boxlight’s MimioProjector touch projector on a third wall. Each of these devices is connected to an Apple TV.

The classrooms are set up so that there is really no front-of-the-classroom. If a smaller group is working on a project collaboratively, they can move their workspace around because the tables are on wheels; so, they can slide closer either to the projector or one of the televisions. Then they can send what’s on their iPad to the television through the Apple TV, and share it with the class.

4. Results Matter.

Yes, there is increased student engagement in the new classroom learning spaces. Plus, teachers can now differentiate at a greater level with students, and they’re better able to meet each and every student’s needs with the technology; and that comes not only from the new interactive environment, but also the teachers making a huge shift in their instructional practice. We train our teachers on different strategies that help them create a learning environment that’s really collaborative and make sure that every student has a say. Now, there’s no way a kid can hide in our classrooms.

5. Change is the One Constant.

We continue to refine our learning space redesign efforts. We increased bulletin board space, swapped out mobile projector carts for ceiling-mounted models capable of up to 10 simultaneous users, added more lift-capable tables while eliminating smaller desks that seat just two students, provided cushions to teacher’s chairs, changed the size and number of televisions in one middle school building, and recessed ceiling speakers.

District educators have also shared with me that the new classroom learning spaces facilitate compliance with current standards, allowing teachers to delve deep into those criterions. We’re able to make sure that students achieve the deep understanding that the standards require, especially for those standards including communication and collaboration.

District 96 is now completing the redesign of the rest of the middle schools’ science learning spaces. And exploratory research is underway for common areas including our Learning Center, Tech Lab and former computer labs.)

And just as before, we’ll stay focused on figuring out what will fit our students’ learning needs. In the end, it’s all about student learning.

About the Author:

Kevin Ryan is the 21st Century Learning Director at Kildeer Countryside Community Consolidated School District 96 in Buffalo Grove, Ill.