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Transforming learning with physical spaces

Physical environments have a large impact on student learning, research says

learning-spacesSchool leaders implement new technology initiatives and update teaching and learning goals regularly, but sometimes, the actual physical learning spaces in districts are overlooked.

Today, more and more research points to the increased student achievement and engagement resulting from redesigning learning spaces to be more flexible and collaborative.

Redesigning physical learning spaces can contribute to “brain-friendly learning,” said A.J. Juliani, education and technology innovation specialist in Pennsylvania’s Upper Perkiomen School District, during an Alliance for Excellent Education webinar on learning space design. In a brain-friendly classroom, “the space is flexible [and] mobile. [It’s] a place where students can get up and move around—where learning processes occur.”

(Next page: Experts and educators weigh in on learning space design)

Learning spaces should be flexible and offer a level of comfort, said Benjamin Gilpin, principal of Warner Elementary School (Mich.). Students could opt to work on the floor, on a bench, or in a group of chairs—whatever suits their collaborative preferences.

“Desks and rows are not going to be conducive to collaboration and teamwork,” he said. “We need to see these open spaces that offer flexibility [and] are essentially going to be user-friendly.”

The most basic concepts of design, such as minimal decorations and calming colors, shouldn’t be ignored, added Erin Klein, 2014 Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning K–12 Teacher of the Year, classroom teacher, and blogger at Klein cited a Carnegie Mellon study that found students who learned in a space with muted designs displayed better retention, collaboration, and test scores than students in an environment with bright colors and busy patterns.

“The easiest thing to do is just declutter,” she said. “Use calming colors, monochromatic colors that appeal to both genders. Have collaborative furniture and flexible learning spaces.”

For more details on what was discussed during the webinar, click here.

In Iowa, the Great Prairie Area Education Agency set about building “Room 21C,” a model of innovative classroom design that district leaders hope will influence teaching and learning.

Great Prairie uses a data system called Bright Bytes, which measures implementation and use of technology including use of the 4Cs, digital citizenship, and more. That system revealed that the district wasn’t making much progress implementing and using educational technology, and that realization prompted the district’s journey to Room 21C.

“We realized that perhaps the environment has a lot to do with it … our teachers really do great things; maybe the environment isn’t conducive to 21st-century learning,” said Sally Lindgren, the district’s director of technology and innovation, during an edWeb webinar. “It’s really not about the teacher teaching as much as it is around the student learning.”

District leaders wanted to examine how to truly effect change in the district, and they decided part of that change had to come from physical learning spaces and how students are–or aren’t–encouraged to collaborate.

District leaders outlined three basic “must-haves” for classroom design:

  • Furniture must be mobile and flexible
  • Each collaborative area must have a display
  • Each collaborative area must have a writeable surface

New learning spaces, they decided, should include:

  • No teacher desk
  • Flexibility
  • No “front of room,” or no back or sides, for that matter
  • Engaging spaces for collaborative group work and the 4Cs

Educators consulted research about classroom design, include SCALE-UP and TILE case studies done at the university level.

They also investigated furniture vendors’ offerings for flexible spaces, wireless and mobile device support, and ease of use.

Room 21C, which launched in September, features a learning lounge with a 60″ monitor and video conferencing camera for student interaction, projects, collaboration, and more.

Benches and seating offer space for more individual student learning, as well as a 3D monitor.

The room also has a 150″ high-definition theater screen that works with a 3D printer, and Lindgren said the goal is to create a 3D environment.

Small tables with chairs, as well as displays, are dotted throughout the room for additional collaboration and projects. All the walls are covered with writeable paint to encourage spontaneous whiteboard use.

The room includes Lightspeed Flexcat devices, a group audio solution that uses wireless tabletop speaker and mic units connected to a teacher headset.

Students use the Eduvision platform and TechSmith Fuse to support learning with video and live media. They create video-based projects to reflect on lessons and content; engage with content through digital media, gaming, animation, social media, and apps; and they work independently and together, supported by the classroom’s physical design, to build skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Furniture design company Bretford embarked on a two-year study with California’s Hillbrook School and HERO, Inc., a research and consulting firm. The study focused on how physical environments impact learning. The school replaced an outdated computer lab with a custom learning space called the Idea Laboratory, or iLab, and researchers gathered data that reveals how an agile learning space positively impacts teaching and learning.

Identical educational activities and projects in traditional learning spaces within the school were also measured as a point of comparison with the iLab. Data included o

Onsite observations, student feedback, teacher evaluations, photos, and videos all were used to compile data. Activities were replicated in traditional learning spaces to compare to activities in the iLab.

Key findings include marked behavioral differences in the iLab–students and teachers are more engaged and interact more with one another inside a flexible environment.

“The energy in the iLab is greater than in my classroom — I believe it is because of the movement,” said Christina Pak, a seventh and eighth grade history teacher and Hillbrook School, in a statement about the research. “Kids need both structure and change. The iLab has helped me think more about how the physical learning environment can spark students’ interest and help them think beyond.”

eSchool News Editorial Intern Ean Marshall contributed to this report.

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