Countdown to Innovation
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Nothing makes me happier than when someone comes into my classroom and cannot find me. Of course I am likely in the room somewhere, but the fact that it is not obvious where the teacher is in the learning space tells me that my classroom is a student-centered, collaborative environment in which I serve as a facilitator, mentor, and advisor, but am not solely responsible for delivering the instruction and learning of the day.
Of course, my classroom does not always look this way, but changes to my learning spaces in the coming months will bring me closer to this goal.
In one short month, ten years of planning, debates, transitions, proposals, and construction will finally come to fruition as the new Bloomfield Hills High School opens. Approximately 1600 students and over one hundred staff members will enter the newly constructed commons area, knowledge market, learning communities, and state of the art facilities for the first time. This process has been a long and arduous one, but the results will be remarkable and will foster creativity, innovation, and student-centered learning for generations to come.
For the last two years, I have been part of a small learning community implementing project-based learning in English, science, and social studies classrooms in our building. One of the added perks of being at the forefront of this work has been the ability to work with Steelcase and our interior designers, FNI, to pilot potential new furniture for the school’s various learning spaces.
Through this pilot program, I discovered that all the research in the world cannot tell you as much about student productivity as a teenager can. By observing my students in various seating arrangements, chair types, and writing surfaces, my colleagues and I better understand the function of educational furniture, and the fact that differentiation must occur not only in how we teach, but in where students learn.
For example, this year I had 2 short stool-type seats in my classroom. They swiveled, raised and lowered, and could be easily moved anywhere in the room. I always knew, without a doubt, that one particular student in my AP class would come in, move the chair near ‘his desk’ (I don’t have assigned seats, but students generally selected the same type of furniture each day regardless of where it was in the room), and take the stool wherever he was going. As a tall student, he enjoyed the flexibility with the stool height, and he found it more comfortable than other seating options. While I’m sure that he would have been just as wonderful a student in traditional seating, the fact that he was more comfortable in his learning space and could personalize it anywhere in the room likely increased his engagement and investment in our class.
In regards to selecting furniture and designing learning spaces, there are several components that seem to be integral to student success and comfort. One of those, as mentioned above, is a lack of “front” of the room. The space becomes more collaborative and the students feel more ownership over the space and their own learning by removing the ‘sage on the stage’ philosophy and model. For me, this meant the removal of a teacher desk from the classroom. This year, I had a teacher work-space, which was a standing-height movable surface. I could stand there if I were lecturing, move it around the room to conference with students, push it into a corner when I wasn’t using it, or allow students to use it when guiding a discussion or moderating a debate (their favorite way to use the podium!). This tool became essential to my style of teaching, as it allowed me to be more flexible in my interactions with students, and made multi-level collaboration a possibility.
Finally, the most important quality that a room and its furniture must posess in order to be as productive as possible is that it must be flexible. Just as students learn differently, they also find different seating types and arrangements comfortable. For that reason, it is important to have furniture to suit multiple styles–individual desks, small group tables, larger group tables, etc. A recent Edutopia article, titled “10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom” (Goertz 2015) emphasized that one of the crucial elements of a 21st century classroom is the ability to easily and comfortably collaborate. The ability to have seating that can easily twist, roll, and connect to form groups of any size while allowing students to separate if needed is crucial, and one of the features of the learning studios in our new building. Each learning studio serves a different purpose (large format discussion, project work, small group collaboration, etc.) and so each space is stocked with different furniture types. One of the most flexible of these rooms contains individual seats that can easily combine to form square tables, whole-group circles, or even a straight line for a panel discussion. In any case, flexibility is key.
In our work over the last two years, our focus has been collecting data and information straight from the source–our students. We have observed them, tested them, questioned them, listened to them, and in one short month we will see the fruits of their labor. Our school will be designed as an open, collaborative environment, with spaces for groups of every shape and size. A true 21st century learning environment.
Goertz, Patrick. “10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom.” Edutopia. N.p., 27
Feb. 2015. Web. 06 Aug. 2015.