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Space Race: How Districts are Retooling Classrooms to Teach for the Knowledge Age

Emerging classroom design considers furniture and fixtures, and then dives even deeper to enable a tour de force of technology-driven, individualized education.

Earl Swensson Associates, Inc.
At Maury County Schools, half an hour south of Nashville, classrooms of the future are taking shape. As the district designs a new elementary school and middle school — both scheduled to open in August 2019 — it’s rethinking learning spaces to make them more digital, connected and collaborative.

The new classrooms will have no formal “front.” Instead, they’ll be dominated by floor-to-ceiling interactive whiteboards. Wireless displays and flat screen televisions located throughout the room will let teachers present information or highlight student projects on the fly. Students will be able to push their tables together or aside entirely and work collaboratively on the floor.

“We can’t keep building schools like we have for the last 200 years,” says Dr. Chris Marczak, the district’s superintendent. “We are not in the industrial age; we are in the knowledge age; and education has not adjusted to adequately prepare students for that workforce.”

In Marczak’s vision, flexibility exists not just within a room but between rooms. In the new elementary school, kindergarten and first grade will occupy a shared space in one wing, and second through fourth graders will share space in another wing. Common areas will join the various learning spaces.
Welcome to modern classroom redesign.

The next generation of K-12 classrooms will deliver a range of tools. Emerging classroom design considers furniture and fixtures, and then dives even deeper: Design supports peer-led learning, empowers digital discovery and gives the teacher new means for connecting to students. The best of these spaces are a tour de force of technology-driven, individualized education.

Forget the traditional classroom with rows of desks and a teacher upfront. Think instead of projectors linked to tablets. Put all the furniture on wheels to form ad hoc working groups. Write on the walls. Wirelessly connect everyone and, increasingly, everything. By the time you’re done, the space bears virtually no resemblance to that old room, and the teaching isn’t going to be the same either.

“It’s the idea of engagement,” says Dr. Mark Potter, superintendent of Liverpool School District in New York, which has spent $150 million in renovations over the past decade. “What does education mean to kids and how do we make it more meaningful? How can we help them understand the purpose and the value? A good part of that comes from being in a place where they can be excited and feel like they are part of the conversation.”
The Physical Space
Physical space may not be the most glamorous aspect of digital education, but it’s here that school districts can sometimes make the biggest impact at the least expense. Moreover, smart design of the physical space supports the more whiz-bang digital aspects of the modern classroom, making this a key starting point in the overall design discussion.

Take for instance the work of the Great Prairie Area Education Agency, a state-chartered entity that provides guidance to some 3,700 teachers in 33 school districts in Iowa. As part of its Room 21C classroom design initiative, the agency aims to create “a learning environment specifically designed to promote both collaborative and personalized learning through the use of technology.” To this end, it lays out new guidelines for the modern schoolroom: 
  • The classroom furniture must be mobile and flexible.
  • Each collaborative area must have access to a digital display.
  • Each collaborative area must have a writable surface.
  • Project leaders came to this mantra after seeing all the ways in which digital tools were not being effectively adopted in the old spaces.
“We saw schools that had gone to 1-to-1 computing, but really nothing had changed,” says Sally Lindgren, director of technology and innovation. “People were still teaching the same old way, with kids doing very low-scale things, basically copying and pasting.”

How do the three tenets play out in practice?

“There is mobile and flexible furniture: Chairs and tables are on wheels and can be reconfigured to meet the need depending on content,” Lindgren says. “Every cluster of tables would have some kind of display — a monitor, or a flat screen on the wall that could connect to technology. There is a writable surface, which can happen in a lot of ways, from Post-it notes to writable paint on the walls to big white boards that are mobile and flexible.”

The Teacher Effect
In Fremont Unified School District in California, a new $51 million elementary school set to open in 2019 also will feature open spaces, collaborative areas, flexible furniture and digital connectivity. These new classrooms are designed to support new ways of teaching and learning.

“Teachers should have the ability to configure the classroom in different ways at different times, depending on the educational outcome they are focused on,” says Therese Gain, director of facilities and special projects. “We are moving toward project-based learning, so we don’t just want the teacher standing at the front of the classroom lecturing.”

Marczak, from Maury County Schools, describes conventional teaching methods as being overly prescriptive. “All third grade here, and all fourth grade there. You stay in your lane, you stay in your room and teach your kids,” he says.

In the new rooms, where space is shared and digital technology connects everyone, teachers can steer kids out of those narrow lanes.

“It used to be that the ones in front were most engaged and the teacher had no idea what was going on beyond the first two or three rows,” he says. “Now the teacher is flowing freely around the room, and the kids all know what is happening.”

Because the teachers are operating in a different mode, students in turn have the chance to learn differently.

“It goes back to collaboration and teamwork,” says Fremont’s Gain. “If you have 30 students and each one is writing on their own pad of paper, that’s the old method. If you have teams of kids coming up with thought-provoking questions, you want to give them the means to capture that together.”
This is where technology enters the picture. As an element of the overall classroom design, technology emerges as the facilitator. Projectors and tablets become the unifying entities that enable collaboration.

Setting the Digital Stage
For those seeking to embrace the digital aspects of classroom design, there are multiple points to ponder to ensure a smooth implementation.

For example, a tablet for every student means you have to buy a lot of tablets and provide the infrastructure to support them.

“There are obvious things like making sure the room has enough power,” says Stephen Nelson, an architect and director of Educational Architecture with Larson & Darby Group. “In older classrooms there might just be one or two outlets. Now you need something more — maybe you need a cart with a charging station and the power to support that.”

By collaborating on such questions early on, designers and administrators can build in appropriate infrastructure from the start. At the same time, school leaders can do more than just count power outlets: They can establish policies that support effective use of technology.

“If you hand out devices to kids, part of the deal is that they bring it to school charged. That’s part of their homework,” says Steven Turckes, global preK-12 practice leader at Chicago architectural firm Perkins+Will. Policies also should address BYOD: If students tote their own devices, the school needs rules around when and how these are put to use, to ensure ample bandwidth and charging station availability.

Administrators can avoid costly upgrades in the future if they tackle such questions up front, rather than incorporating digital needs as an afterthought. For instance, wireless bandwidth demands can expand quickly in schools that embrace technology.

“At first we put a wireless hotspot in the hallway to serve four classrooms, but that is becoming outdated,” says Nelson. “When you have four classrooms with 20 or 30 kids in each class, it creates slowdowns. So now we are putting a hotspot in every classroom, especially in the upper grades where the number of devices greatly increases.” (It’s not just the school-issued tablets — BYOD smartphones increasingly are hogging bandwidth.)

Technology permeates Great Prairie’s Room21C. There’s networked lighting, a two-way audio management system, a theater-sized screen with a 3D projector, all controlled by an iPad. Wireless infrastructure makes it all shareable.

“The students can work on their display, and the teacher can cast it wirelessly to any display in the room, so students have a new way to engage with one another. The room design promotes collaborative, active learning,” Lindgren says.

To do this effectively, the space itself must support the new uses of technology: Beyond power and bandwidth, the shapes of spaces makes a difference in how technology is used. Liverpool School District has a 1-to-1 Chromebook initiative for grades 3 through 12, and it has created open, common spaces as part of the school design to make best use of those devices.

“If we want kids working in small groups and using their devices to plan a presentation together, I don’t want them restricted in where they can go,” Potter says. “We have benches built into the hallways so they can work together and still be connected to the classroom.”

Pervasiveness of screens and projectors as a means of collaboration also puts appropriate lighting front and center.

“There is always a push to use daylight in classrooms and less fluorescent or LED lighting to save energy and provide a warm environment for the kids. But with that comes glare,” Nelson says. “We need to balance those concerns.”

Specialized window materials and shading can help, and there’s a move away from the typical wall-of-windows to waist-high configurations.

One cost-saving way to tackle the issue is to look at building orientation: Western-facing windows will draw afternoon sun and the possibility of glare. Architects and educators continue to wrangle with the question, and with the related issue of lighting in general. Here a clearer solution does emerge: Put everything on a dimmer switch that lets teachers fine tune classroom lighting.

“You want to dim the lights to make the presentations visible, but you don’t want them so low that students in the back fall asleep. You want them alert and you want them to be able to see what they are writing if they are taking notes,” Nelson says.
The Human Factor
All these design choices reflect a larger mission. Digital devices, connectivity, lighting and furniture aim to empower a particular vision of the way in which education will unfold.

To succeed in deploying digital classrooms, administrators need to communicate that mission and vision effectively across the faculty. Among those looking to craft the classroom of the future, the most successful will approach the task with teacher involvement and acceptance high on their radar.

Lindgren finds turning the tables often helps drive change. “We are giving educators the opportunity to come to our space for meetings or for professional development, and then we present those in a collaborative manner, putting our educators in the position of being learners,” she says. “By modeling this different way of engaging materials, that really helps it to catch on.”

Marczak fosters teacher acceptance by making the spatial experience a part of an overall push toward project-based learning. His district has a four-year contract with Discovery Education — a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the parent company of the Discovery Channel — to implement a sweeping digital curriculum initiative called DIPLOMA (Digital Integration Plan for Learning on Mobile and Accessibility). Besides deploying laptops and other electronic devices to students and teachers, the initiative will implement one- to three-week projects in place of traditional worksheets and lectures.

As part of that process, teachers at Maury County Schools will have “three solid years of intensified professional grassroots work around this kind of learning,” Marczak says. The hope is that they will come to accept the new space as a tool for implementing the new pedagogy.

At the same time, the district’s administration is trying to be flexible as people adapt to the new style. “For the first couple of weeks it was difficult because it was something they had never done before. We gave them the freedom to fail and to try things at their own pace,” he says.

Even as the new spaces challenge teachers to try new things, some would argue that if you take a step back, none of this is really all that new. Group learning? We’ve talked about that for years. Digital devices? Rapidly on the rise. Individualized spaces and experiences? That’s been on the books too. All that’s really new here is the coming together of all these threads in a single physical space.

“This is a change that has evolved over time,” Potter says. “Now the classroom is just making it a little easier to apply all those concepts.”
Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.