Learning Environments

Hunting for Hacks in a Moldable Classroom

One alternative school lives its real-world, problem-based learning approach through open-space classrooms, hands-on projects with relevant outcomes, and a strong sense of community.

September 1, 2015

Editor's note: Mike Deragon, a humanities teacher who was instrumental in launching YouthBuild Providence, is focused on culturally relevant pedagogy. This shows how YBP lives its real-world, problem-based approach through both its curriculum and its unique learning spaces.

YouthBuild Providence (YBP) is an alternative pathway to graduation in Providence, Rhode Island where we work with 16- to 24-year-olds who have not found success in the traditional school system. Using a real-world, problem-based learning approach, we help our students achieve their high school credentials and move on to postsecondary education, all within the 1-2 years that we have to engage them. This lofty task is undertaken with limited space and resources, so we are forced to constantly do more with less.

Within our limited space, YBP has created a hands-on learning environment, where students interact and utilize all of the available materials and space to understand concepts, create things, and build on ideas. These are practical learning classrooms, focused on doing, with the goal of accelerating students' learning of skills and knowledge through connections to their lives by showing the practical application of what they learn.

Building From Scratch

Our learning centers were almost entirely empty spaces when we first began operations. Through a joint effort by the students and staff, we built the furniture -- tables, chairs, desks, and so on -- to get the place ready to use as a learning environment. All the rooms and sections in our collaborative learning centers are used as creatively as possible, so that students can obtain the maximum benefits from all types of learning techniques, whether group discussions, lectures, or one-to-one learning.

We have also managed to successfully incorporate technology into our everyday classroom activities. Technology and computer education have become a big part of the 21st-century skill set and are required in industries all over the world. Through donations from technology companies and private schools, and by devising other cost-effective methods, YBP has made it possible to equip our learning environments with an adequate amount of computers and other resources. This has helped enrich the educational experience of students even further, and expands the classroom outside of what may be possible within the physical school.

Suggested Hack

Check with local businesses, private schools, and organizations for donations, as these places regularly replace their equipment and give their gently-used technology away to non-profit organizations and schools.

Open-Space Learning

Unlike schools and colleges, programs and small schools like ours have very little space. By utilizing open-space learning, all spaces can be used effectively for completing student projects. They can choose to work in a classroom, library, kitchen, conference room, or any other available space in order to complete their projects successfully. As our focus is on problem-based learning, the students don't need the traditional desks-and-blackboard setup for every day of learning. If teachers and schools can be creative in defining what a classroom looks like, then even the smallest spaces can become places for deep and rigorous thinking, collaboration, and learning. The best way to accomplish this is by repurposing existing furniture or opting for less-expensive, mobile desks and chairs that can allow for easily restructuring a room’s layout to meet any given day's learning agenda.

Also consider using the community as your classroom, through partnerships with local businesses, colleges, and organizations. Through these collaborations, students have the opportunity to leave the traditional school setting and discover that learning can take place anywhere.

Suggested Hacks

  1. Set up common spaces to use as classrooms and/or collaborative work areas, and encourage staff to work in them rather than their offices.
  2. Consider purchasing furniture that is easily reconfigurable. Like technology, many businesses and organizations will donate used furniture when they refurnish their offices.
  3. Build relationships with local businesses, colleges, and community partners to utilize their spaces for learning and collaboration on projects or units of study.

Sense of Community

This kind of flexibility gives students better interactions with their teachers and the opportunity to ask questions while working on their individual and group assignments. A major focus of these educational setups is building strong student-teacher relationships. The interactions are more free flowing, authentic, and aimed at enhancing knowledge and helping one another. This also helps the students in developing their social and emotional personalities as well as their academic personalities.

A strong emphasis of schools such as YBP is on building a sense of community. The day starts with a morning community meeting and ends with a closing circle, which is another small gathering of students and teachers. These are opportunities for positive affirmations and acknowledgement of student progress, and also techniques for keeping the students motivated and building a sense of unity. The students and teachers feel almost like a family as they work to get the maximum out of what is being offered. These practices also encourage the students to return the next morning feeling energized and focused on their agendas for the day.

Suggested Hack

Build community activities outside of the classroom into the daily schedule to remove barriers between students, teachers, and staff, and to encourage a sense of unity.

Doing More With Less

The spaces at YBP work in a way that everything, whether it is the furniture, classroom setup, or resources, can be adjusted to meet the learning requirements of that particular day. You could almost classify it as a moldable classroom where changing the space changes form and structure so that it can be used efficiently every day.

Project- and problem-based learning is perhaps the ideal way for getting students ready to benefit from good employment opportunities, especially when there are constraints of time and other resources. It is amazing to see how creative, effective approaches to imparting quality education are emerging in today's world. By using these simple hacks, YouthBuild Providence has been able to help over 100 students who were previously disconnected from school earn their high school credentials or GED over the last three years. We believe this is truly "doing more with less."

The BIF Student Experience Lab partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to produce a free, online space for educators to discover and share creative ways of repurposing existing resources to give students opportunities for deeper learning. Go to School Hackers to find more school hacks or share your own.  

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  • Learning Environments
  • Career & Technical Education
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 9-12 High School

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