Feb 16, 2018

Learning Spaces for Gen Z

By Dwight Carter and Mark White 

One of the hottest topics in education today is space redesign. Educators see how their operations are being buffeted by the global disruptions that are reshaping society — and they are beginning to envision new ways to design schools. 

Here are four quick tips applied in the design of Clark Hall, an award-winning high school building in Gahanna, Ohio, that effectively combines space, global skills, and technology with the needs of today’s learners. 

Tip 1: Think Starbucks 

As educators ask how to redesign their schools, a quick answer should be: “Think Starbucks!” When we walk into Starbucks, we have lots of choices: we can drink hot or cold coffee, eat croissants or cookies, sit at the bar or a table, or perhaps in a soft chair or even outside beneath an umbrella. Starbucks is all about giving the customer options in a relaxed atmosphere. 

And that’s the way learning spaces need to be designed today. 

Today’s students are Gen Z. They text, swipe, connect, hangout in person and virtually, and view the world differently than their predecessors. They have been using the internet since before they began to walk, and it’s given them choices their entire lives. When they get tired of Netflix, they might change to Hulu or YouTube. When they get tired of one song they switch to another one on their streaming iTunes or Spotify. When they skim articles on their phones, they are scanning the bullet points and looking for videos to speed up their learning. 

Gen Z students love options; they love Starbucks. But when they walk into schools today, they usually power off their devices and sit in classrooms designed for a 20th century industrial learning model — an era that has been replaced by the Knowledge Age and the global economy. They often sit in straight rows in square classrooms and do the assignments the teachers have designed and in the time allotted to them.

Instead, Gen Z students should be given options in: 
  • how they choose to complete their assignments
  • how much time they need to finish their work and do a high quality job
  • how their learning should be assessed
  • where they sit — in student desks or beanbag chairs, at high top tables, on soft chairs or exercise balls, or even on carpet squares on the floor
Put another way, schools need to move from the Boring Age to the Starbucks Age. Learning no longer has to be a black coffee in a Styrofoam cup — it should be a venti, half-soy, double chocolate, iced vanilla Frappuccino® in an insulated mug. With whipped cream on top. 

Tip 2: Teach Global Skills for a Global Economy 

Seen any university libraries recently? They don’t look like the old, quiet repositories of facts any more. The traditional rows of brown bookshelves with musty books are rapidly disappearing. They are being digitized and replaced by all kinds of seating options ranging from small conference rooms to huge open areas where students can sit in natural lighting and work at their laptops. The spaces are designed to let students: 
  • think critically, either silently or while engaged with others
  • create new products that range from papers to fully developed, multi-media projects 
  • work collaboratively in small groups to exchange ideas and go deeper into the assignments
  • make presentations to each other and communicate via the internet with peers in their class or in other parts of the world 
Many universities and corporations understand success in the 21st century will hinge upon the ability to apply information in new ways. One of the most innovative companies in the world is Google. To get ideas on learning space redesign, google a Google workspace. You’ll see games and pool tables, funky furniture, bright colors, and other features that spark creativity. The world is becoming less formal as it becomes more connected and more creative ― these are the workspaces of the future. 

In contrast, most K-12 classrooms today are not designed to spark innovation; they are designed to foster a teacher-dominated environment where students sit independently and show their content mastery by using pens and pencils to write answers on paper. As teachers insert more global skills into their curriculum and move from being disseminators of information to facilitators of learning, students will need to move around the classroom, work in the hallways, find collaborative conference rooms, and make presentations in large common spaces. 

In other words, schools don’t have to resemble the ones we knew in the 20th century: they need to look like the universities and work spaces where their students will be spending the rest of their lives. When global skills become just as important in schools as standardized testing, then students will move seamlessly from one stage of life to the next. 

Tip 3: Make Technology the Foundation of Learning

The average American high school student spends six to nine hours per day in front of a screen of some type. Most of those hours are before school and after school, or perhaps in small increments of time during the school day when students surf their smart phones to get their technology fix. While more technology is now making its way into classrooms, too many educators still rely on textbooks that are supplemented by occasional forays onto the web. 
Schools have no choice but to move to a teaching and learning system predicated on technology usage—because our students live in a technology-heavy world. As learning space is redesigned, educators should ask: 
  • How can the learning space foster effective technology usage? Is there room for students to comfortably use their devices alone or in groups? Can the space be designed so that groups don’t bother students who are working alone? 
  • Is the furniture designed so that students can sit comfortably with their laptops or tablets? 
  • How can social media be used to enhance instruction and communication? 
  • How many plugs are available for charging devices? 
  • The only place most students use pens and pencils today is in schools; if given a choice they’d rather text on a smart phone or type on a tablet. Technology is not a luxury; it’s a necessity — and the learning space can enhance how it is used. 
Tip #4: Start Small and Involve the Students

Most educators don’t have the luxury of building a new classroom or building. Luckily, space redesign can be done on a small budget in all types of buildings, even the oldest ones. Some quick, cheap fixes include: 
  • adding some bright paint to walls
  • putting a few soft chairs or exercise balls in one corner of a classroom
  • converting part of a hallway or cafeteria to a new type of space by adding new paint, furniture, rugs, or carpet squares
  • turning a large storage room into a collaborative learning space
  • shifting the school library, or one part of it, into a 21st century environment by adding bright, comfortable chairs
When wondering how to begin, educators can ask the ultimate authority: their students. Great starter questions are: “Which furniture is most comfortable for you? What colors do you like? What ideas do you have for how to use the space? Do you see any other things we can do to make the space more fun and to help you learn?”  Students are the new partners in education; they should have a voice in how they are educated and how schools are designed. 
It used to be that educators could enter the profession and teach the same way in the same types of classrooms from the beginning of their careers until they retired 30 years later, but that era is gone. Now they must be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The days of mastery have been replaced by a career of constant adaptation to new expectations, new teaching styles — and new types of learning spaces for Gen Z. 

About the Authors:

Dwight Carter and Mark White have worked together for over 15 years, first in the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools in Gahanna, Ohio, where they were both administrators, and now as authors, speakers and consultants. Together they led the team of teachers, students, and community members in the design of Clark Hall, a high school building that was named the Best in Tech 2012 by Scholastic because of its innovative use of global skills, technology, and learning space to teach Generation Z. They recently coauthored (with Clark Hall architect Gary Sebach) What’s in Your Space? 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design, which is published by Corwin Press.

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