Learning Environments

One School District’s Journey into 21st Century Learning Part II: Creating Active Learning Environments

July 14, 2016

How can we create active learning environments that integrate technology and support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards? What do teachers need to foster active learning environments? Unwrapping and implementing the Common Core State Standards requires not only shifts in instruction, but also tools and hardware that enable teachers to go deeper into content with their students.

Based on the above driving questions and the concept of the physical classroom as the Third Teacher, our district decided to use money from a generous community bond measure to purchase all new 21st century furniture last year. In a nutshell, this meant furniture on wheels that allows teachers and students to adjust the classroom for any given instructional need, be it whole group instruction, small group collaboration, or individual work spaces.

There was a range of responses to the idea of all new and mobile classroom furniture. “Yippee, it’s about time!” to “Kids on wheels? Are you kidding?” Professional development was definitely in order. This was largely delivered to the members of the K-12 Curriculum/Staff Development and the EdTech Committees through a presentation by Learning Spaces guru, David Jakes, and EdTech queen, Holly Clark.

Committee members were first guided through the “whys” of active learning spaces beginning with the question: What learning experiences do you want students to have? This led to the development of a “manifesto,” or 10 shared agreements about what those experiences could be in the era of 21st century learning and Common Core State Standards. A summation of the manifesto work could be: “Every classroom should be a space where children prove anything is possible on a regular basis.”

Teachers were then asked to consider pedagogically agnostic spaces- those that accommodate a variety of learning approaches, needs, and the integration of technology, and to think about those spaces more creatively. Classrooms could be referred to as “studios” and hallways could be called “learning streets,” for example.

The final activity involved teachers designing their own classrooms. OneWorkPlace, a commercial office furniture dealership, took the reins after that. Over several meetings, they worked closely with district personnel and committee teachers to choose different types of furniture to pilot, and to engage in a selection process that gathered input from all teachers. Committee members visited the OneWorkPlace storefront to see furniture up close, pilot classrooms opened their doors to colleagues for visitations, and a spreadsheet containing feedback from teachers and photos of the different kinds of furniture being piloted was also available to access at any time.

An Active Learning Environments Multi-flow map was created to help guide thinking and decision-making. It was a rigorous process with multiple challenges. Questions arose around pedagogy, classroom management, and the furniture options. The committees gathered input from their sites and eventually, furniture was chosen for almost every classroom based on budget and its ability to provide flexible grouping and varied, more comfortable seating options. Teachers then chose from 2-3 furniture packages that they felt would best allow them to meet their classroom and instructional needs.

Teachers have had one school year so far to work with the new furniture. Initial feedback was gathered by the union. Many teachers love the versatility of the furniture; especially the mobile whiteboards that can support small group instruction and be used by students to make their thinking visible. Allowing students to choose how they move into different spaces in the classroom for collaboration is also working well for many teachers.

Some of the concerns center on safety. Chairs on wheels can sometimes slip out beneath a student rising to get up out of a seat. Other teachers are concerned about the lack of storage for student supplies and don’t like the extra traveling students must do to retrieve items from cubbies.

Next steps by our district might involve following up on the initial feedback and conducting additional surveys to find more ways to help teachers maximize the potential benefits of the new furniture. One of our district teachers, for example, will be sharing ideas on best practices during professional development this coming August.

Attention to classroom design and the new mobile furniture are two areas that address significant pedagogical shifts advocated by the new standards, (Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards.) Our district has been moving steadily to support teachers in providing these kinds of active learning environments for their students. Part III, the final installment of this series, will focus on our district-wide implementation of 1:1 iPads.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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