School Climate & Safety

The New Classroom Look

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 16, 2009 6 min read
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Keith T. Larick envisions classrooms with banks of wired and wireless computers, ceiling-mounted projectors, interactive whiteboards, and mobile tech-enabled work carts for teachers, all linked to allow for dynamic, multimedia presentations that inspire learning. Students’ desks would be moved out and replaced with individual workstations and group tables to foster hands-on and collaborative projects.

The schools, as Larick sees them, would even shed the age-old term “classroom,” which implies a confined and stationary space. The modern “learning environments” would be expandable spaces that could accommodate everything from lectures to projects, one-on-one instruction to large-group interactive presentations.

As a futurist who tries to conceptualize the needs of students and educators decades from now, the former superintendent views such features as essential for helping students build the kinds of knowledge, skills, and learning habits they will need to excel in a rapidly changing world.

“For the kind of learning they’re going to engage in, boxes aren’t going to do it,” Larick says of the traditional 30-by-30-foot classroom. “The spaces are going to have to facilitate students’ sharing information, working together in teams, small- and large-group instruction, and having access to multimedia tools.”

Most of the ideas Larick describes are dreams for the future. But for some schools, the future is now, at least when it comes to incorporating some of the features of 21st-century classrooms that experts recommend.

‘More Interactive’

At the Tracy Learning Center, a K-12 charter school near Stockton, Calif., an aging campus has been adapted with those learning principles in mind, with help from Larick, who retired in 2002 after four decades as an administrator in California districts, including Tracy and Sacramento. He now directs the Leadership Connection at the University of LaVerne in Southern California.

Tracy Learning Center 9th grader Roberto Vauregui eyes a digital projector during a school geography lesson.

A Web portal allows students at the school to forgo traditional textbooks and log in for lessons and instructional materials. They carry their work on USB flash drives, pocket-size data devices that plug into any computer. Classes meet for assemblies and presentations in a double-wide portable classroom designed for multiage groupings and team teaching.

Teachers at Tracy stay connected with students, parents, and colleagues through the Web, and use laptops for meetings in shared work areas or to interact with colleagues through collaborative Web sites. Unused classrooms have been equipped as demonstration areas, where students can present the projects in the required multimedia format.

“We were looking for a way to have students be more interactive, more in control of their learning, ... where everyone has access to resources,” says the school’s executive director, Virginia Stewart.

As at the Tracy Learning Center, the classroom of the future will combine technology and design to enhance learning and develop the kinds of technical skills, content knowledge, collaborative tendencies, and critical-thinking capacity—so-called 21st-century skills—that experts say will be essential for students to be competitive with their peers around the globe.

“Today we see that kids are so into technology, ... they’re so savvy and facile, but very often the classroom becomes a little dead compared to what they are typically used to,” says Gaylaird Christopher, the president of Architecture for Education Inc., a firm based in Pasadena, Calif., that designs progressive school facilities. “So often, renovation and modernization of a school are looked at as finishes and lighting, leaving out the importance of the configuration of the learning environment.”

For some veteran educators, the call for open learning spaces might prompt flashbacks to the open-classroom movement of the 1970s, which inspired schools with few walls between classrooms. The designs were not widely embraced by teachers, who found it hard to manage their students and to talk over the constant noise from other classes.

An updated version of that kind of dramatic change in school design, though, is not likely, according to Larry Cuban, a Stanford University researcher and education historian. As long as the traditional school structure—with grade levels and set class schedules—is maintained, teachers can only tinker with their class spaces.

“The larger structure is the age-graded school, ... which imposes on us the need for a building with self-contained classrooms,” Cuban says. Like churches and museums, school buildings have a long history that makes it difficult to break out of the traditional mold, he added. “These kinds of institutions that are trying to both preserve and change at the same time are not going to make dramatic changes in architecture.”

Such changes, he says, can be costly and hard to adapt to.

Adapting to Student Needs

But views on classroom configuration have been changing, says Christopher, who helped convene school architects, historians, and futurists earlier this year in Pasadena for a symposium. Video presentations from the meeting are posted at www.architecture4e.com. The attendees shared ideas about how schools should be designed, organized, and equipped in the near and distant future.

Technological upgrades have given 2nd and 3rd graders at the Tracy Learning Center more 1-to-1 computing time.

Attendees also discussed the need for classrooms that are useful for traditional, student-led, and interactive lessons alike.

Their proposals are similar to the kind of classrooms, or learning environments, that architects described just over a decade ago in a survey for American School & University, a print and digital publication dedicated to education facilities.

“The evolution of the classroom will be driven by technological advances and changes in instructional approaches,” according to the 1998 survey.

Most schools, it’s safe to say, have not reached the goals of respondents back then: “Teachers and students will be able to write on the media walls, print from them, and project onto them. These giant screens also will bring the world to the classroom—someday enabling students in the United States to collaborate almost side by side with students from other schools, communities, and countries.”

As the cost of educational technology drops, however, those kinds of tools and applications are becoming more of a possibility and a reality, Christopher argues.

His company recently completed construction of Herget Middle School in Aurora, Ill., which adapted the popular floor plan of long corridors with classrooms on either side to create flexible work spaces. The class spaces have large roll-up doors that open to the hallway. The expanded space is now a quad area for use by all classes along that wing of the school.

Other schoolroom standards, like chalkboards and textbooks, have been updated with electronic formats.

Considering that most of the nation’s schools will be housed in older buildings for the foreseeable future, retrofitting existing classrooms is a practical alternative, says Stewart, from the Tracy Learning Center.

The 70-year-old Tracy building has its limitations, she points out, but until a new facility is built—something school officials hope will happen in five years or so—the staff and students have to make do.

“We still have the walls and the classrooms,” Stewart says. “We’ve just adapted them to student needs.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as The New Classroom Look

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