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Learning Spaces | Feature

Designing the 21st Century K-12 Classroom

Six design elements that shouldn't be left out of today's smart classroom

It's not enough to take a traditional K-12 classroom and fill it with technology. The smart classroom requires a more methodic approach that factors in the design of the basic shell, the teacher's space, and the students' independent and collaborative work areas.

Schools that ignore this step, said Issac Herskowitz, director of New York-based Touro College's instructional technology program, will wind up with smart classrooms that fall short of their goals. "Designing classrooms for today's learners requires a different approach than what's been traditionally employed in K-12 settings," said Herskowitz.

Here are six design elements that should be incorporated into the 21st Century classroom.

1. Desks and furniture that support collaboration. The days of the single desk and chair are gone, according to Herskowitz. He said he envisions a time when all K-12 classrooms are developed around the concept of collaboration--between student and teacher and among the students themselves.

"You want students to be able to do discovery learning and to work together on projects and problem-solving," said Herskowitz.

To support that concept, he said, furniture should be able to accommodate multiple learners and then be repositioned for independent learning (such as testing). "When you start with this foundation," said Herskowitz, "the collaboration comes naturally."

2. Ample electrical outlets. Not all students will come to class with their iPads and laptops charged up and ready to go. To make sure 21st Century learners have the power they need to engage in classroom activities, Amber Golden Raskin said her school uses a combination of electrical outlets, some of which are integrated into the classroom furniture, and power strips that are distributed through the classroom.

"Think about your students' current and future power needs early in the design phase," said Raskin, executive director of business development and operations at SCVi Charter School in Castaic, CA, "and you'll avoid the hassle of having to add more at a later date, post-construction."

3. A "smart" teacher lectern. Teaching in a smart classroom requires a "smart" lectern, said Herskowitz, who advised schools to put time and money into the structures that teachers will use as their home bases. USB ports that allow for easy document camera connections, interactive whiteboard equipment controls, and other features should be incorporated into the fixtures.

"You really want to make everything accessible for the teachers that are using the technology," said Herskowitz. "If instructors are comfortable in the space and able to use all of the tools that you put in front of them, half the battle is won."

4. Lighting that's easy to control. With audiovisual technology becoming more advanced and even more useful in the K-12 classroom, the need for lighting that's easy to dim or enhance is imperative. The student sitting furthest away from the projection screen, for example, must be able to see the workspace clearly and without interference from shadows.

"Factor in the natural lighting, the fixtures, and the controls," said Herskowitz, "and focus on accessible lighting controls that allow the teachers to adjust quickly."

5. Physical space that goes beyond the single classroom. Who says the 21st Century classroom has to be a single room? At SVCi, a four-year-old charter school, Raskin said holes were intentionally punched in classroom walls to help create a collaborative environment that expands beyond a single room. "Students and teachers can go in and out of the openings, which are covered by curtains when not in use," said Raskin.

The strategy works particularly well when teachers collaborate on interdisciplinary projects. "Being able to share across classrooms is a big deal here," said Raskin, "and something that we strived for when designing our learning spaces."

6. Fewer expansive gathering areas. The traditional, campus-wide auditorium didn't have a place at SVCi. Instead there are several mid-sized gathering areas designed to accommodate three or four classrooms full of students who need to come together to share, collaborate, or watch a live presentation.

"We went with smaller common areas rather than just one big assembly room," said Raskin. "Our goal was to get students exercising the 'expression' muscles in smaller groups that lend themselves to more participation and collaboration."

At its core, Raskin said, the modern-day classroom's design should revolve around the idea that students should no longer be sitting alone at desks "spitting out answers" to a teacher who stands behind a podium. "In the last century we were a factory-driven society and schools were designed around that concept," said Raskin. "Today we must create spaces where students can collaborate and participate in real-life environments where they can learn how to work on teams; that's what they'll be doing in the work world."

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