School Modernization

The Expandable Classroom: Walls That Move!

Movable wall solutions create flexible learning spaces that provide an ideal complement to technology-based education.

The terms that are frequently used are 'drill and kill'--or 'sage on the stage,'" says Richard Crummel, chief administrative officer for Texas' Burleson Independent School District, describing the timeworn unidirectional lecturing style of schoolteachers. It's something his district has worked hard to get away from.

"Instruction has changed," Crummel explains. "Collaborative classrooms, small-group instruction, peer tutoring--these are the phrases now used over and over again."

It's to suit this new era of learning, Crummel says, that his district decided to create flexible classroom space in all three of its newly constructed elementary schools, Judy Hajek Elementary, Irene Clinkscale Elementary, and Ann Brock Elementary, as well as in a fourth school scheduled to open this fall. It sounds like a grand undertaking; but in fact the flex space was made possible by a one-time investment in a fairly simple modular wall solution by NanaWall Systems.

Here's how it works: Between every two classrooms, expandable walls were installed, providing a common space that can be used as the two neighboring teachers see fit. The partitions can be completely opened, creating one large classroom space for collaborative projects; they can also be closed off so that individual students can be sent into the common space for small-group instruction. From there, the possibilities are myriad. Ongoing science experiments can be housed in the flex space so both classrooms can actively participate; a teacher can use the space to speak privately with a misbehaving student; students who skipped breakfast can go there to eat without disrupting the rest of the class.

There's even a sink in the common area for easy cleanup of messy artwork and craft projects. The space has also proven helpful, Crummel says, in acting as a staging area for parents and room moms who come to the classroom to serve treats to the students.

Wireless access throughout the adjoining classrooms makes for seamless transport of technology, no matter how the walls are configured. A student needing to complete work without distraction, for example, can bring a laptop into the space and work in quiet, since the walls also create a soundproof barrier.

The result? "Kids are on task more often," Crummel says. He explains that before the new construction, students were often sent out into the hallway for collaborative projects, which were difficult for the teachers to monitor. The problem wasn't just about students slacking off; many younger kids found it difficult to focus in a peer-on-peer tutoring situation, for example, with other students passing them in the hallway all the time.

"It's a little less embarrassing to go into the flex space," Crummel says.

Being able to observe students in the flex space--the movable walls have glass partitions--is also a bonus from a security standpoint, especially in an elementary school setting.

"We're very protective of kids nowadays, compared to where we were 15, 20 years ago," says Crummel. "The nice thing about the flex space is that the teachers have their kids in their area, where they can keep an eye on them at all times."

Having space that allows students to break into smaller groups is an emerging trend in K-12, says Konrad Judd, principal and lead designer for SHW Group, which designed the movable wall solution for Burleson ISD. "Learning needs to be highly flexible and adaptable," he says. "With the integration of technology it's more necessary than ever."

But in the current economic environment it's also more difficult than ever to live up to 21st century learning imperatives, such as creating an expandable, modular classroom. The NanaWalls, for example, cost Burleson ISD nearly $13,000 apiece. The use of flexible walls, however, is actually cost-effective; it's a way of maximizing resources that schools already have. The much more arduous, and certainly costlier, alternative is to construct entirely new classroom space.

"There's some up-front initial cost," Judd says, "but it gives schools longevity and flexibility and takes them into the future, so their investment is a wise investment. I think that's really our responsibility--to help them be good stewards of their funds."

Judd's firm, with offices in the major Texas metropolises (Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio), has incorporated relocatable wall solutions into an impressive number of schools in the state over the past couple of years, including NanaWall partitions at Kay Granger Elementary School in Fort Worth; Kawneer curtain walls at Frisco Career and Technical Education Center; and custom-designed folding panels at Plano's McMillen High School. He's seen a growing number of his clients interested in flexible classroom space, whether it's to help accommodate an exploding population of students or to create the room for more collaborative, project-based work.

"We're also seeing a willingness in districts to treat kids such that they can take on more responsibility and independence," Judd adds, referring to the kind of autonomous learning environment these flexible spaces provide. "It's that notion of college readiness."

Perhaps nowhere is this approach on better display than at Texas' New Tech High at Coppell, one of the member schools of the national New Tech Network, which bases its curriculum on a 21st century, project-based learning model. Students at New Tech at Coppell learn core subject matter by working in small teams of two to eight students to solve real-world problems.

"Really every nook and cranny of the building was designed around that idea of technology and collaboration," says New Tech Principal Tabitha Branum.

To foster this new instructional paradigm, an existing elementary school was entirely transformed to create New Tech High: Giant grade-level storage closets were turned into project-planning rooms for the students, complete with conference tables and interactive whiteboards; walls were knocked out between classrooms, leaving an oversized space to be stocked with flexible furniture that can be reconfigured to fit any given project; and everywhere wireless access was installed to support the school's 1-to-1 laptop initiative (first- and second-year students have Macs; juniors and seniors have Dells).

The clincher, however, is the school's recently updated media center. Branum wasn't originally planning on renovating the space so soon after New Tech opened, but feedback from the students made it clear that they wanted more privacy in which to collaborate.

"I didn't realize the media center would be such a needed area for our kids to work," says Branum. "They communicated to us that when they're in a classroom that maybe has 40 kids and 10 different project teams, that's a lot of output--that's a lot of noise. It's hard for them to collaborate with just their team and hear each other."

But for student teams flocking to the media center in search of some privacy, the traditional, library-style furniture wasn't cutting it. So Branum and her team decided to update the space in July with movable walls from office furniture maker Steelcase. They're actually a bit less imposing than walls; "mobile screens" the manufacturer calls them.

"They're nothing fancy," Branum says, adding that she easily fit the purchase of six of the smaller-sized models into the school's budget. "They're just on wheels and can be moved anywhere in the media center."

But they are purposeful. Because the screens are dry-erase board on one side and tackboard on the other, they create an impromptu workspace for collaboration and brainstorming in whatever area students choose to wheel them into. With the addition to the media center of modular chairs that house students' laptops, as well as access to a conference table with a large flat-panel monitor where users can plug in their laptops and collaboratively share their work, students now have the makings of a totally mobile, anytime/anywhere meeting room.

While the screens themselves won't actually reduce the sound all that much, the newly designed facility will still afford a sense of privacy the students were lacking in the school's double-sized classrooms and in the former media center.

"Because there's more space between each team and the way the furniture in the room has been designed, it will still be a lot quieter than if they were in the classroom with 10 project teams all working in a very confined space," Branum says.

What's interesting is that in Branum's view, a solution as unsophisticated as a rolling screen system will actually add more to the school's collaborative environment than any other high-tech gizmos she and the teachers could offer--a bold position for the principal of a school called New Tech High.

"What we've learned from our kids is that they don't need a lot of peripheral devices," she says. "They want their laptops, and then they want these collaborative screens that they can use to combine their work."

And, of course, one more thing: "They wanted more of these spaces where they could get some quiet."

This, Branum says, came from the students directly. After bringing them into committee meetings in which she and staff were looking at other technologies they could bring into the classroom, it became clear that more didn't necessarily mean better. "The students said, 'Ms. Branum, this isn't going to help us learn. This isn't going to engage us.'"

What, then, would do the trick? Branum says the students made it clear--collaborative learning. "It's our facilitators' job to create learning experiences that do just that: engage."

How ironic that structures usually meant for creating barriers would be just the thing to make it happen.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of THE Journal.