A Movable Feast
Furniture on wheels! Wireless islands! Cutting-edge K-12 classroomdesign marries digital technologies with thoughtful architecture,challenging traditional ideas about where and how learning takes place.
BACK WHEN MENKO JOHNSON WAS TEACHING sixth-, seventh-, and eighthgradersabout computers at Crestview Middle School in Columbus, OH, hespent most of his time in a gymnasium that had been converted into a computerlab. The students' desks were arranged along the walls, and when they workedon the computers, they faced those walls.
"It was a classic computer lab environment," Johnson recalls. "It meant that 80 percent of my students had their backs to me most of the time. The room was arranged that way, not because it would be a good teaching setup, but to accommodate the wiring."
It is also a classic example of a learning space made less effective by technology.
Today, Johnson is an instructional technologist at San Jose State University in California, where he focuses his time on the effective integration of technology and learning spaces, with an emphasis on collaboration and flexibility. Johnson is part of a team supporting SJSU's state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot Academic Success Center. At the heart of the project is an incubator classroom that combines movable furniture with an array of audiovisual technologies designed to enable collaborative classroom interaction.
"In the old days, we let the technology dictate the configuration of the learning space," he says. "Now what we talk about is a flexible classroom that can be arranged any way you like into a teaching environment that suits you. In our case, that means that we use tables and chairs instead of desks. And just about every piece of furniture is on wheels so that the space can be easily reconfigured. Think of the classroom as a grid on which you can move the tables and chairs anywhere you want."
Johnson believes that the lessons learned at SJSU can help K-12 districts design more effective, tech-enabled classrooms. In elementary classes, for example, where the younger students stay in one room all day, movable furniture and wireless computer stations could allow the teacher to reconfigure the space on the fly to support different activities. The SJSU incubator classroom features three projection screens: a large one in front and two on the sides. This configuration would allow, say, a high school teacher to display multiple pieces of information to different work groups collaborating within the same classroom in what Johnson calls "micro-environments." A central server, like the one housed in the incubator space, could facilitate collaboration in any classroom by connecting wireless laptops.
Though the focus of Johnson's work is the impact of technology on instruction and student learning, he insists that a successful synchronizing of technology and classroom puts the teaching before the gadgetry.
"Whenever we talk about technology in education, we have to start with the pedagogy," he says. "What are your teaching goals? What are you trying to achieve? What types of learning do you want to happen? It is true that we are surrounded by, and even immersed in, technology, but we still have to leverage it in a way that is educationally useful, in a way that's better than what we don't do digitally. Just because it's digital doesn't mean it's better for learning."
ONE L OF AN IDEA
TODAY'S LEARNING SPACES NO LONGERHAVE TO BE ORDINARY RECTANGLES. ADESIGN INNOVATOR SAYS THE 21ST-CENTURYCLASSROOM TAKES A WHOLE OTHER SHAPE.
CHALLENGING ENTRENCHED expectations of what a classroomshould look like is something of araison d'être for Henry Sanoff, anarchitecture professor at NorthCarolina State University.
A widely published author, Sanoffis considered one of the preeminentexperts on learning-space design for the K-12 sector. His booksinclude Creating Environments for Young Children (North CarolinaState University, 1995); School Design (Wiley, 1994); and CommunityParticipation Methods in Design and Planning (Wiley, 1999).
Over the past few years, Sanoff has been challenging one of thefundamental expectations of classroom design: shape. He hasbecome well known for his innovative L-shaped classrooms, which hesays "suggest possibilities that teachers might not have considered ina space with four corners.
"In a traditional rectangular setting there are four corners, and thatdoesn't suggest to teachers any special way of arranging the class, sothey do it the way they were taught, or the way they have experienced,"Sanoff says. "In an L-shaped classroom, the corners suggestpossibilities teachers might not have considered before. The tendencyis automatically to arrange the room in groups. Once the students arearranged in groups, the teacher has to move around and can't stay inone place, because the L shape doesn't allow that."
Sanoff has designed L-shaped classrooms for a new elementaryschool in Gibsonville, NC, and an elementary school in nearbyJamestown. He hastens to add that the L shape was actually selectedby the teachers. "We use a technique where the teachers look atall kinds of possible classroom designs and arrangements based ondifferent criteria—team teaching, student independence, collaboration,etc. In [the Jamestown project], all the teachers agreed that theywanted an L-shaped classroom, even though none of them had everexperienced such a thing. When we built it, I went down andrearranged two rooms to show them how to lay it out, and they wereecstatic about it."
The key is to think about how the technology will support your teaching goals, Johnson says, but you also want a physical space that supports the technology. That includes things like flexible furniture and easy access to power and networking outlets. The pedagogy, technology, and architecture revolve around each other, he says, but always with the educational issues at the center.
"Let's assume that you are trying to create K-12 learners that are problem solvers," Johnson explains. "You want them to be able to take in information, assess it, digest it, and assemble it to solve problems as a team. If your students are sitting at tiny desks in rows facing the front of a rectangular classroom, it's going to be difficult to achieve that goal."
But even with the teaching mission front and center in the classroom design process, in some ways the technology is still defining the learning space, observes Diana Oblinger, vice president of Educause, a Raleigh, NC-based nonprofit association that promotes the intelligent use of information technology. The good news is, Oblinger adds, rather than forcing students to face the walls, technology is knocking those walls down.
"Now that you have wireless connectivity, any place can become a learning space," she says. "We're no longer thinking about learning as something that is contained in a traditional classroom. Consequently, the design emphasis is shifting to focus on what you want students to do, rather than what the space is all about. Schools can, and in many cases will, evolve into spaces that resemble learning complexes, where some students are in classes, some are in groups in the library, and others are gathered outdoors."
Oblinger is responsible for Educause's teaching and learning activities and is director of the group's Learning Initiative. She also serves as an adjunct professor of adult and higher education at North Carolina State University. And she is the co-editor of six books, including The Learning Revolution: The Challenge of Information Technology in the Academy (Anker Publishing, 1987) and Educating the Net Generation (Educause, 2005). Educause focuses on colleges and universities, but Oblinger says that much of her work on the design of the modern classroom is applicable to K-12 learning environments.
"It's important to remember that the pedagogy and the people come first," Oblinger says. "It's not about the technology; it's not about the design. These are spaces designed for learning. That said, you want to look at the activities the technology might enable in a classroom setting. You want to provide students with direct access to resources, so that if you are asking them to work on a problem they can go to the web to look things up. You want to make all the things that people might need to do in class—from accessing information to collaborating with other students, drafting documents to doing calculations— available through the integration of the technology."
While classroom designers are rearranging the desks and moving the power outlets in real space, the phenomenon known as Web 2.0 is transforming cyberspace, and in the process, Oblinger says, challenging long-held notions of how students study. As the web evolves from a collection of HTML web pages into a multimedia computing platform, it is fast becoming a world rife with collaborative technologies— wikis, blogs, social networking sites—all of which are widely used by students to share an enormous range of information and experiences. Oblinger says this revolution has to be accounted for in a classroom layout.
"You want [your students] to be able to take in information, assess it,digest it, and assemble it to solve problems as a team. If your studentsare sitting at tiny desks in rows facing the front of a rectangular classroom,it's going to be difficult to achieve that goal."—Menko Johnson, Crestview Middle School
"What you're seeing all over the world is that people are using wireless networks, and a variety of collaboration tools have emerged to take advantage of that technology. Consequently, tools that allow people to come together physically and virtually must be part of any classroom design."
One of the biggest roadblocks to achieving integration of the physical and the virtual in K-12 classrooms is a set of timehonored presumptions of what a classroom should look like— such as, it should be rectangular, and have a front and a back.
"Right now, most school districts have what are called ‘educational specifications,'" explains Henry Sanoff, distinguished professor in the School of Architecture at North Carolina State University's College of Design. "This is a laundry list of specs for every room that goes into a school, including the size of the rooms. It's like a straitjacket. Some districts are more flexible, but by and large, the ed specs have dominated the production of schools for decades. That's why all schools tend to look alike. And the advent of computers hasn't changed that."
Oblinger says that shaking up expectations of what a classroom is supposed to look like is a good way to get teachers thinking in new ways about what they are doing. "The environment sends a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle cues about what's going to happen in the space," she says. "The concept is called built pedagogy. It suggests that the way a room is designed dictates the teaching approach, or sends teachers into certain mental defaults.
"I walked into a lecture theater a few days ago that had 500 seats, all facing forward, all in rows. The lights were pointed at the stage. There was a lectern up there with a screen behind it. When you walk into a space like that, whether you are a learner or an instructor, your mental default is that the audience will sit there silently while the teacher lectures at them. If I had walked into a room with no central focal point, filled with round tables with free-standing chairs, and everyone was facing each other, and there were screens on all four walls, I would assume, as would the students, that this would be a much more collaborative environment."
To view the design of Lake Geneva Middle School's Technology Center,go here.
Grant Strobel has learned firsthand how different classroom architecture can change an instructor's teaching style. Strobel is the tech ed teacher at Lake Geneva Middle School in Wisconsin. He works in the school's 2,600-square-foot Technology Center, an open classroom—no dividers, no cubicles—designed for a modular education program covering 18 different areas of technology. Built in 1999, the classroom is furnished with free-standing islands equipped with computers and a range of tools for hands-on projects and group problem solving. Each learning module covers a different technology, from radios to rockets, lasers to IT. Students work at the islands in pairs, Strobel explains, but the classroom also has three work tables where they can gather in greater numbers.
The wide-open design of the Lake Geneva Tech Center keeps Strobel "constantly cruising," as he puts it. The design has changed his ideas about what constitutes effective teaching. "I'll never go back into a traditional classroom," Strobel says. "The kids are so much more engaged in here. For one thing, it's completely hands-on. I'm not going to stand up in front of the classroom today and tell you how robots are used in the world or how rockets work. It's a completely different style of teaching."
One way to get past the bias toward traditional models is by doing a bit of window shopping. If you want to know what constitutes an effective integration of technology and classroom design, Johnson advises, take a look at what is working in another school district.
"I think exposure to other classrooms is critical—even at colleges and universities, which tend to be ahead of K-12 in this area," he says. "At some level, a classroom is a classroom. When you are in an environment for a long time, you forget— or you've never had an opportunity to see—what it's like to do something really differently. If you don't see other sites, you may never be exposed to some radically different approaches that could inspire you. The worst thing you can do is to think that you're going to have all the answers."
And take your information technology people with you. "You definitely want to involve IT in your planning," Johnson says. "The disconnect we see so often is that the IT people don't understand how to teach with technology. Remember, these are the guys who put the computers on the wall. The input from the instructor here is critical. Where are you going to stand and actually teach? How are you going to be able to see these screens, get to those students? These are things that teachers will understand instinctively, but the tech guys will need to be told."
Perhaps the most imposing obstacle to a truly tech-optimized K-12 classroom, says Johnson, is the existing physical infrastructure. "In K-12, you have to contend with legacy architecture, and in many—maybe most—cases, you just have to work with what you've got."
Sanoff actually sees a fixation on technology as another potential obstacle. "We haven't yet come to grips with getting the conventional classroom to work effectively," he says, "and it's unlikely that the technology is going to make a radical difference if we don't use what we understand about the diverse ways in which children learn to create teaching settings that encourage exploration, creativity, and innovation. We're not at that level yet—and the technology is not going to help if the objectives aren't very clear. The truth is, we probably spend too much time and energy looking at new toys as a substitute for addressing some of the most critical issues in education."
Differing with Sanoff, Oblinger insists that technology is now an inextricable part of the classroom design equation, but she agrees that we haven't yet figured out how to optimize it. "We understand now that this is the most connected generation," she says. "What we're just starting to figure out is how that translates into more effective classroom design. The technology is changing, and our notions about what people are comfortable with, technologically, must too shift with it."
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John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.