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Building Your Classroom for the 21st Century

  • February 08, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

Learning spaces used to be practically devoid of diversity. Traditionally, those referencing a “learning space” have been referring specifically to the classroom, or perhaps a library. In the 21st century, with the continued addition of technology, the term has gotten fuzzier; a learning space can now be any place, anywhere. Today’s learning spaces are more flexible than ever before, catering to different roles on different days. Although newfound flexibility brings possibility to the table, it also means new considerations. How should schools be setting up learning spaces so that teachers and learners can most effectively interact? What does a campus – or K-12 classroom – optimized for learning look like?

At first glance, it might that seem considerations regarding learning spaces rest solely on the shoulders of administrators. They provide the classrooms for teachers to teach in, dictate the tools that are at their disposal, and control the availability of certain technologies (such as those needed to enable distance learning). But teachers also have some control; they can augment their assigned physical spaces in ways that leverage technology to enhance instruction. No matter who is making the decisions, administrators or instructors, choices should reflect sound learning theory.

In Educause’s “Learning Spaces,” Malcom Brown, the director of academic computing at Dartmouth college, points to the dual impacts of technology and the “Net Generation,” digital natives who have grown up with technology and consider it to be integral to their daily lives. Connecting the dots between changing learning spaces and these impacts, he says:

“These changes catalyzed by technology make it clear that the term classroom, at least in its traditional sense, can no longer encompass where learning takes place. Equally obvious is that the space in which learning takes place is no longer just physical; it is virtual as well.”

Brown isn’t the only one to recognize an unavoidable shift – many schools have already set forth to embrace a new vision of learning spaces in their own unique ways. For example, Denver Public Schools’ project, the Imaginarium, reflects an experiment to redefine the standard classroom. The project attempted to renovate on a budget, and brought forth additions such as added custom furniture, a new touchscreen, audio speakers, a camera mount for recording classes, and what EdSurge reports as the most popular feature, a “Skype Mountain.” The Skype Mountain is an area of the classroom with an amphitheater-style setup where students can “sit, congregate, and connect with the world.”

These up-and-coming interpretations of learning spaces are dynamic, much like the roles of today’s teachers. Instead of being one-sided, they are multifaceted, capable of supporting a teacher as they shift from a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side,” to any of the many necessary roles in between.

In 1996, David Thornberg identified four types of learning spaces, which he later went on to update in 2006. His concepts can still be readily applied to today’s increasingly digital learning environments. Specifically, he included:

Campfires (lectures): This type of learning environment involves a place where students can learn from presenters and discuss ideas as a group with easy access to both digital and non-digital tools. This concept works well face-to-face or virtually and lends itself to enhancement with laptops, tablets, and cloud storage.

Watering holes (conversations): This type of learning environment is one that allows for small group collaboration, perhaps around small, circular tables with comfortable chairs. Desks lined up in a row don’t easily make way for the kind of open, fluid conversation teachers should strive for in this type of environment. Tools such as whiteboards, post-its, markers, mobile devices, and more can help progress healthy discussion. Watering holes can also be virtual.

Caves (quiet reflection): While group learning is important, so is independent study. This type of learning environment allows for reflection, individual work, and creative exploration. Small, quiet, enclosed spaces, still within eyesight of instructors can help to accommodate these needs. Aside from the physical infrastructure of the classroom, students need easy access to information, which can be made possible using cloud storage, tablets, and laptops.

Life (application): Learning is meant to be applied. After all, outside of the classroom, the “real world” looms. Students need opportunities to engage in real-life settings with guidance from experts. This type of learning environment could range to include after school meetings, tours, visits to community locations, Google Hangouts, and virtual simulations.

Above all, it’s important to remember that learning spaces should not just be a thrown together arrangement of students and tools; they must be created with intention. In the “Research Study on Innovative Learning Environment for Graduates Students of Programming Language,” as published in the International Journal of Science, Technology, and Management, Dr. Tejinder Singh and Er. Gurpreet Singh write:

“Designing 21st century schools and new learning environments starts with defining the outcomes. We must ask, ‘What knowledge and skills do students need for the 21st century?’”

Today’s teachers are supported by the same learning environments that have existed for ages, but today those environments are enhanced by the ability to gather, online or offline, synchronously or asynchronously, to create more dynamic and impactful learning environments. Teachers can include traditional and nontraditional students in the same lesson plan. New tools and varied learning environments can back teachers’ many modalities, as well as offer students diversity in their approaches to learning. The methods of teaching have not changed – the learning mechanisms have. Taking the time to learn about new available options, test them, and gather feedback from learners and instructors can help educators create learning spaces that best work to their advantage.

Reference Articles:

1. “Learning Spaces” Educause. 2005.
2. “How Low-Cost Designs Can Support High-Tech Classrooms” EdSurge. January 6 2016.
3. “Designing New Learning Environments to Support 21st Century Skills” Bob Pearlman. 2009.
4. “Australia’s Campfires, Caves, and Watering Holes” Learning and Learning with Technology. June/ July 2013.
5. “Research Study on Innovative Learning Environment for Graduates Students of Programming Language” International Journal of Science, Technology and Management. March 2015.