Jan 16, 2018

Creating Classrooms with Missions in Mind

By JD Ferries-Rowe

We gathered around the table in the Teacher’s Resource Center (the TRC), created three years before to give educators a place near both the library and the IT offices where they could plan, play, and learn in the same way that we expected of the students. Around the table were the IT director, an architect, the librarian, the assistant principal and principal and the president of the school. The subject of the meeting, laid out in front of us on large sheets of white paper with computer-assisted drawings in black and our recent notations in red ink was the design of a new library, nearly three years in the making and nearing its conclusion. Thus, it was with some frustration that this celebratory moment was marked by the President saying, “No, I don’t like that. It needs to change.”

The renovation of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School’s library into an Information Commons was a process 4 years in the making. It involved surveys of students and faculty, research into best practices, a lot of reading about design thinking and library theory, focus groups, and quite a few showroom floors. Our goal was to create a space that would fit our school's mission and be an improved space for the students — our main customers.

Setting a Context

The BJPS library was built in the mid-1980s. The school at that time did not emphasize group work, did not use computers, and was designed for a student body of 500, not our current population of 800. It was anchored by an enormous and imposing circulation desk that sat off to one side like a guard’s tower in a prison. The lighting, original to the buildout, was that classic fluorescent that seemed simultaneously too harsh yet not bright enough for the space. Large wooden “stack” style bookshelves dominated the walls and wings adding to the feeling of cramped space. Twice a day, this feeling became reality when 80% of the student body is released for “Personal Responsibility Time” — when the library was so crowded that students had to be turned away.

The library was surrounded by large hallways dividing the TRC and IT dept from the library proper. Another hallway served as a relatively unused passageway containing a seldom-used computer lab, the computer science classroom (a thrown-together collection of carpet, cobbled together tables and desks, and gorilla shelves filled with old computers and wires), and the entrance to the newly-renovated Wellness  Center. On either side of the large hallway was a catacomb of various work rooms, storage areas, and unused offices that were crowded with old equipment, books, and AV technology that included slide projectors and overheads. Architects who had conducted a space study for us determined that over 30% of the area was either hallway or storage and was considered “unusable by students”.

In addition, the recent change to a 1:1 BYOT model eliminated the need for computer labs and carts (the library had both and another nearby.  Students in need of help with devices were often found to be standing outside the hallway in front of the Teacher Resource Room (TRC) or the IT dept. (a typical machine heavy, cluttered space that is the opposite of an inviting place).

In conducting our surveys and focus groups, we found that students had a number of ideas of their own:

        They wanted us to emphasize small group spaces (51%) and silent study space (49%).
        They wanted a social space but also a place where they could get help with research papers.
        They wanted to build a robot, print a slinky, produce a video, or play with a drone.
        They wanted to be able to check out a book.

With this diverse assortment of goals in mind, we began the research, design, and dreaming phase. We would tear down the walls that created the hallways and labyrinths of storage cubbies (narrowing it down to one room of storage, a utility sink and bathroom). Utilizing the found space would accommodate 60 more students.

The furniture would be flexible, including standing and sitting tables, large couches, “buoy” stools, and comfortable reading chairs. The circulation desk would be smaller with a “sitting height” side and centered in the space instead of serving as a guard post at the entrance. Small group rooms would give space for students to work in an observable area without disturbing the library as a whole. The large “stacks” would be replaced by counter-height shelves that would be placed in-between populated areas to serve as a sound-buffer.

The IT department would have the prerequisite “cave” of stuff including a relocated server room, but would also have a helpdesk area for students (and someday run by students). The outdated computer science lab would be updated in both equipment and furniture/room design to match the Information commons and the collaborative and innovative learning we were expecting in the space.

Back to the Drawing Board
“No. I don’t like that. It needs to change.”

The issue on the table was the “quiet study space” that was the most popular section of the current library and the most important part of the library for about half the students (based on surveys). We had figured out a few years before that the best way to create a quiet space was to put it as far from the library entrance as possible. It just so happened that this space contained large glass windows that looked out onto the athletic fields and a balcony used by students and adults alike. “We cannot get put large study carrels in a prime location like that!”

Plans were adjusted again, creating a glass-walled room to the side of this space. The glass would be designed to be nearly sound-proofed, would contain flexible furniture that could be used as study carrels or as classroom tables for full class instruction, and the dividers would be removable whiteboards!

Additionally, the largest study room was modified to create a “Makerspace” based off the increased use of 3D printer (awkwardly housed in the TRC) and the clear trend in library build-outs. The plan was to have “zones” for productivity, socializing, and quiet study. We started the demolition phase over a spring break holiday with a scheduled opening for Fall of the next school year.

What we learned:

        The president was right. The quiet study space was well placed in the redesign. No adult has ever had to quiet it down. The visual cues of the glass wall and divider-tables are enough.
        “Zoning” requires similar cues that we didn’t adequately design to be natural, particularly when 25% of the school’s population is in the space working and socializing.
        The Makerspace outgrew the “study room” in one year. It was moved into the “Teacher room” which became much less utilized when the large glass windows were installed (oops). The space now includes VR and AR stations, three 3D printers, a podcasting studio, a Lego wall, and animation boxes.
        The technical foundations matter: Good wi-fi, easy-to-use printing services (both walk-up and BYOT), digital signage that can be updated easily by non-techs, and a fully staffed helpdesk can make or break the space.
        The library is still the library: Librarians who enjoy helping students with research, availability of relevant resources (paper and digital), and access to tools are still key.
        Lighting is a game changer: we used natural-lighting solar tubes for one section of the space and wish we had placed more of it throughout the library. LEDs are a cost saver and brightener. Additionally, light-colored carpet squares (a clean-up must) and light paint will brighten up the space.
        By keeping furniture modular and varied, we can change the look and use of space to fit the needs and desires of the students and encourage spaces to be used through design process rather than by constant “shushing”.

Ultimately, we are still in the process of learning what works best in the space. This method requires an openness to change and a formal commitment to solicit feedback, reflect on what is working and what is not, and a willingness to admit when something is not working, even if it used to important. Sometimes the best insight is “it needs to change”.

JD Ferries-Rowe is the Chief Information Officer at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, IN. He is responsible for Management of the 1:1 BYOT program and all technology and edtech initiatives in the school. JD works closely with the principal's office and others on aligning technology, learning, and curriculum to the mission of the school. He was a presenter at EDspaces 2017.

Matching the Environment with How Students Learn

By Kevin Stoller

Like many of you, I’ve been in thousands of classrooms throughout my career. The vast majority of them look like this:

Students sit in their assigned seats in straight rows. The teacher is at the front of the classroom near his desk to start the session. He has a front board that is either dry erase, Smartboard, projector, LCD screen, chalkboard — or a combination of these. The students are expected to pay attention, sit still, watch the board, take notes, and be quiet — unless they raise their hands and wait to be called on. When the bell rings, they go to their next class and repeat throughout the day.

Sound familiar?

However, there is a movement going on today in education, a literal movement. I’ve had the privilege to witness classrooms that look more like this:

Students come into the class excited and pick where they want to learn. There is noise coming from all directions. The teacher gets the students’ attention in the middle of the classroom and everyone swivels, loosely forming a circle around her to make eye contact.

The instruction is brief and to the point, the students get the game plan for the day and break off into groups of 4-5 and make space to interact. Again, eye contact is made, this time between peers as they communicate on their work.

One student breaks off from the group to work on their portion of the project. The teacher moves throughout the room and challenges the students on their thought process. Several times throughout the class period, she gets everyone’s attention by sharing info from her hand-held device to the monitors positioned around the room.

One student jumps out of his chair and paces, then points to the screen that a classmate is sharing from her device. The room is buzzing, maybe even considered loud. The student that broke away, now has headphones on, but is re-joining his group after sharing what he created.

The class period is half-way done and the teacher starts reminding groups that they’ll be presenting in a few minutes. Time is up and the first group shares their screen with the rest of the class. The students swivel their chairs to watch the presenter, their own devices put down.

One student scoots closer to hear and see better. Two other groups share their progress and a discussion ensues. With two minutes left, the teacher gets back in the middle the classroom, reminding students of the deadline and the work they need to do that evening. The bell rings and a few students remain to ask questions as the discussions continue into the hallway.

With the integration of technology into the classroom, this second example is now a reality for many schools all over the country. Whether the first or second example describes the current space, this article is written for you. If we look at this shift in the industry as a bell curve like a Product Life Cycle, the industry is on the verge of a tipping point. The Early Adopters of new technology, furniture, and educational tools have paved the way for the Early Majority. Lessons were learned, corrections have been made, and we are now seeing the Early Majority joining the revolution of improving learning environments.

The Challenge
The education system is more complicated than ever. Various student needs, demands from society, parents, and government entities. Additional constraints may be old buildings and inadequate teaching space due to more students per classroom. The staff and teachers are asked to do more with similar — or even less — resources. There may be times when you feel like you are in a no win situation and the thought process is focused on surviving, instead of thriving.

The Opportunity
I get it. None of this is easy, but it is an enormous opportunity to make positive impact on students’ lives. We all have the desire to be a positive influence and drive change within the education community. It only takes one voice to challenge, inspire, and lead in a common goal of creating better learning environments.

Learning Environment Catch-words
The idea of changing the learning environment is not new. Different terms and buzzwords have been used to describe trends:

  • 21st Century Learning (As of 2017, 17% of the 21st Century is now HISTORY. Can we stop using this term?)
  • Flexible Learning Spaces
  • Student-Centered Learning
  • SEL (Social and Emotional Learning)
  • Collaborative Learning
  • 4C’s (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking)
When it comes down to it, the main purpose of education is to help students maximize their potential. For the purposes of our book and this article, we are going to simplify all the catch-words and just focus on making things better. To do this, we need to start with the basics and focus not on the status quo, but on how can we improve. In addition, the educational landscape continues to be more complex — from student needs, testing requirements, and a changing educational population. With all these changes in the dynamics and demands of the classroom setting, hence the need for a well thought-out process either via engagement with educational consultants, or self-implemented with resources such as this. Tony Wagner talks about this in his book Most Likely to Succeed, referring to the improvement process as “educational Research & Development”: the idea of many schools trying different tactics to improve the educational outcomes.

Learning Styles
Let’s start by looking at the different learning styles of individuals. Each student has a predominant learning trait — but will exhibit one or more of the six basic learning styles — Auditory, Visual, Physical, Verbal, Solitary or Social.

1) Auditory — These learners need to clearly hear information.
These students need a quiet space when having a conversation, or to be close to the person speaking during a presentation. Without proper acoustics, this type of learner can get distracted or frustrated.

2) Visual — If these learners don’t see it, they don’t remember it.
Everything visual is a stimulus — from what is on the walls, down to students’ personal workspace. They learn from reading, viewing presentations, and graphical representations. If there are screens in the room, make them large enough for all people to see.

3) Tactile — These learners are the doers of the world.
These students need to get involved and learn by trial and error. The space they require can sometimes be messy. It may necessitate utilizing outdoor space to release their full mental potential.

4) Verbal — Talking it out is the way these learners thrive.
By allowing interaction and creating collaborative situations, the verbal learner gets to brainstorm and figure things out by verbalizing his thought process. Providing the space for verbal people can be via small tables, lounge furniture clusters, and places to walk and talk inside or outside the building.

5) Solitary — Just give these learners some peace and quiet.
Let them get in their own zone to figure things out without distractions. Whether they need a way to break away from the group, close the door, or have some privacy screens — it is up to the leaders of the school to provide the outlets for solitary learners to excel. With the increased focus on collaboration, these learners may need special time dedicated to their needs.

6)Social — Group learners and team projects fit into this category.
The ability to work through it with others is the toughest environment to create, since it requires many variables and options for the students. This is especially true when technology is introduced. If everyone is working on their own devices, technology to share the info with the group is a challenge.

Recognizing this concept is what is driving most of the innovation in our industry today. Makerspaces are popping up everywhere because we are recognizing that the majority of students are tactile learners, they learn by doing. By helping our customers and students recognize how they learn, we will now be armed with valuable information that can help tailor the needs of each student.

Kevin Stoller is Co-Founder and President of Kay-Twelve.com, a national leader of educational furniture. Kay-Twelve.com helps schools, colleges, libraries, and corporations create better learning environments. He is the author of Creating Better Learning Environments and host of the Better Learning podcast.

What We Learned at EDspaces 2017

by Carla Remenschneider, RID, IIDA and Ed Schmidt, AIA

It’s Friday in Kansas City and EDspaces 2017 is in full swing. A diverse mix of educators, administrators and designers fill the Innovation Space, eager to discuss the challenges involved in creating “the world’s most pedagogically-advanced school building.” The title of our presentation is in reference to the British International School of Houston (BISH), an innovative new PK-12 school campus designed for Nord Anglia Education. But what we’re really here to discuss are the five distinct learning environments found at BISH—lovingly referred to as caves, campfires, watering holes, mountain tops and marketplaces—and how any school can utilize them to become pedagogically-advanced. Or, that is the plan...

Halfway through our presentation the conversation steers away from the design of learning environments and into the operational strategies behind them. We’re surprised to discover our audience is just as interested in learning how to get teachers to properly use these spaces as they are in the physical environments themselves. It represents the awareness of a gap between what is being designed and how users (teachers and students) are actually interacting with these spaces.

A (Quickly) Shifting Landscape

The gap between design and reality shows up even in our presentation. We crafted our interactive session to use Twitter as a tool for real-time feedback. Audience members break into small groups and tweet questions and comments using designated hashtags, and their posts are displayed in real-time via a screen at the front of the room. BISH Principal Andrew Derry even participates from Texas.

Yet for one group, our high-tech presentation disconnects. In this group, there is nary a Twitter user to be found. And so 21st century tools do them no good, and they initially shut down, refusing to participate.

This small glitch (we quickly found this group a Twitter user to serve as scribe) parallels the challenge that 21st century learning environments pose to many administrators and teachers. Changing physical spaces and tools is relatively straightforward, but changing people? That’s another challenge altogether.

It is this resistance to change, and how we plan for it, that dominates the discussion during the last half of our presentation. When classrooms change, teaching methods must change too. 21st century learning environments are only successful if teachers are open to the concepts of flexibility behind their design, and if they take full advantage of all they have to offer. But how do we get teachers to do this, especially when it requires an adjustment to how they teach?

Mindful Design

In response to this challenge, research-based design is a trend on the rise in K-12 architecture. Post-occupancy evaluations can serve to assess design features and inform designers if their facilities are being used as intended. If they’re not, designers can explore why and brainstorm ways to correct it in their future designs. Post-occupancy evaluations, especially when done by a third party researcher, can be expensive, but it’s worth the investment for designers if they want to improve. At the very least, research can back up design decisions and validate features. At the very most, it can lead us to understand how different aspects of the physical environment affect learning, and to what extent.

Architects can also help users by involving them in the design process. Learning about a client’s current teaching methods can help designers to ease the learning curve for teachers, and receiving input from them creates a more customized design that will be easier to adapt to. Virtual reality is a great tool for allowing teachers to experience their new classrooms before they are built and give live feedback. As designers it is our job to use all of the tools at our disposal to ease our clients into their new environments, and make sure they are using them successfully.

Lastly, as designers we should be connecting new clients to past clients who have gone through a similar process. This provides an opportunity for teachers to ask questions and to learn from one another. They can see 21st century learning taking place and discover how these like-minded schools implemented change. Firsthand experiences and testimonies can go a long way in motivating educators.

Embracing Change

Outside of encouraging your designer to do these things, a lot can be done from the school’s side too. Principal Andrew Derry describes BISH as “the most pedagogically-advanced school building in the world,” but the school wasn’t always this way. When designing BISH’s innovative new campus, emphasis was put on providing a variety of specialized learning environments to support every type of student. The school built a prototype teaching space in their old library for teachers to experience the new direction, and it allowed teachers to familiarize themselves with the new environments and explore how best to use them. By the end of the year, administrators knew which teachers would come back to embrace the new curriculum, and which would move on.

Now, BISH teachers encourage students to collaborate at “watering holes,” present on “mountain tops” and share their experiences around “campfires.” BISH’s central atrium, called The Agora, serves as a “market place” to the community where students can participate in a wide-range of collaborative activities. And, for students who learn best on their own, “cave” spaces offer quiet solitude for personal reflection. Teachers at BISH leverage these spaces along with integrated technologies to support a wide range of lessons, projects and learning activities.

BISH Principal Andrew Derry was one of the biggest advocates for this change in instruction. To set a school on the right path, it is important that administrators embrace the concept and lead by example. Seeing leaders on board and excited for this progression within a school will help to excite teachers and staff.

Becoming Pedagogically Advanced

We came to EDspaces to discuss how to design a cave, but ended up talking about how to use one. Still, the message of our presentation holds true: with passion and creativity, 21st century learning environments can be created and utilized regardless of budget. Administrators and architects must be advocates for these environments, and with them, changes in teaching. The first step is to be transparent with staff, explaining the new direction of your school and why these changes are happening. Then, ask your architect to connect you with schools that have gone through a similar process. Tour their facilities and study how they use spaces. Ask how they taught before, how they implemented change and about the benefits to how they teach now. This will help your school to formulate a plan going forward that everyone can get behind. Then, follow through. With inspiration, dedication and a willingness to change, any school can become pedagogically advanced.

Carla Remenschneider, RID, IIDA is director of interior design at Fanning Howey, a national architecture and engineering firm focused on the design of learning environments. She was the interior designer for the British International School of Houston. She can be reached at cremenschneider@fhai.com.

Ed Schmidt, AIA, is director of project management, The North Americas for Nord Anglia Education. He was the architect for the British International School of Houston. Ed can be reached at ed.schmidt@nordanglia.com.