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Redesigning learning environments enhances student engagement and success

Rethinking Learning Environments

Apr 27, 2018 2018-04-27

By Mary Mehsikomer

When I was a third grader in the early 1970s, I went to a newly constructed elementary school. There were no classrooms, but students sat in large open spaces at desks or tables. The large spaces were called “pods.” Each grade had a “pod” that faced a common area of open space rimmed by bookshelves housing the school library for lower grades. Sliding glass doors could be closed to reduce noise (or contain students) in the pod space. There were flexible walls within the pods that could be pulled shut to allow for concentrated instruction by teachers when students were divided into groups for content studies, or opened for activities that encompassed the whole grade.

Does that sound familiar? We are now in a new iteration of learning environments that reminds me of the environment I encountered in a public school setting in the 1970s, with the exception that we had no internet and the most sophisticated technology was the overhead projector. The New Media Consortium/CoSN Horizon Report 2017 Edition tells us “redesigning learning spaces” will be a key trend accelerating technology adoption in K–12 education in the next three to five years.

Learning Time and Space
Schools are already changing how they view learning spaces, especially as they have the opportunity to remodel or build new facilities. With the proliferation of 1:1 technology implementation and the availability of digital curriculum resources, learning does not need to be confined to a specific time or space. Schools are rethinking the way students use learning time and want spaces that provide students with choice. Teachers want flexible environments that can be quickly rearranged to allow for combinations of small group work, individual learning, and discussion.

New Trends
Minnesota school districts are among those thinking creatively about learning space and use of learning time. Some of the trends I have noted while working in schools include the following:
  1. Repurposing of traditional school library spaces. Innovative school library media specialists are creating spaces where students want to be. Media centers are repurposing space previously occupied by computer labs (not needed now with mobile 1:1 initiatives) with Makerspaces, flexible furniture, space for small group meetings, electricity access for device charging, and robust wireless access.
  2. More open spaces with furniture groupings that facilitate group or individual work. Some districts are also changing how they schedule time so that students have periods during the day where they can decide what they need to work on and where they work on it. One great example of this can be found in Alexandria Public Schools where a new high school was built a few years ago that features some of the best use of space and time. In addition to school officials and an innovative architect, the community as a whole was engaged in the design of the high school, making it a role model for those considering new construction. Click here for a video tour.
  3. Flexible classrooms that have easily shifted furniture and flexible walls. There is also movement away from focusing on the front of the room. Schools are rethinking projection options and white boards and including more mobile options for technologies so they can be used from anywhere in the classroom or moved easily to another learning space. Schools are also configuring technology to make it easier for teachers and students to use in terms of where network jacks are located, easily accessible electrical outlets, push button systems for audio visual, and improved wireless access.
Modernizing Learning Environments
If the focus in modernizing the learning environment is the student, we will continue to see schools with learning spaces that foster student choice, collaboration, innovation, and creativity by the way they are designed. This creates learning spaces students want to visit, engages students in learning, and provides a feeling of ownership in the school community. The learning space I had in elementary school was not so far removed from what is going on today, only now students have access to the world beyond their classroom through technology. The best place to start is to ask your students what they want the learning environment to look like and how it should function.

Mary Mehsikomer is the current Technology Integration Development and Outreach Facilitator and former president for the Technology and Information Education Services (TIES) in Minnesota, and a CoSN Certified Education Teachnology Leader. You can find her on Twitter at @MaryTMM.

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