Yesterday, I attended a great workshop on redesigning the physical school environment to better reflect 21st century learning goals. This session was centered around a very provocative question: What types of spaces support 21st century skills and aptitudes and which ones hinder them?
- Analytical & Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
- Complex and Communication- Oral and Written
- Leadership & Teamwork
- Digital & Quantitative Literacy
- Global Perspective
- Adaptability, Initiative, and Risk-taking
- Integrity and Ethical Decision Making
In redesigning many buildings on their upper/middle school campus, the Barrie School focused on several elements to support 21st century learning. The first is the need for new learning spaces to be flexible. Space was defined as either static, where educators adjust the use to a fixed space, (think holding an all-school assembly, play, parent meeting, and orchestra rehearsal in the same space) or kinetic, where the space itself can be adjusted to better fit the use. Objects that have multiple uses should be privileged over those with a fixed nature, for example Charlie Abelmann's beloved "Barrie Benches". Barrie Benches are moveable custom benches with a whiteboard instead of a back cushion, so that students can use them to collaborate and work out problems. The benches can be moved and configured in all different ways, and they can even be used as room dividers. With cubbies built into the reverse side of the whiteboard back, students can store items in the portable Barrie Bench and transport their collaboration anywhere in the school. Confused yet? Perhaps overwhelmed, but that is the point of a Barrie Bench and other multi-use objects. Their flexibility leaves room for improvisation and innovation, and directly invites kids to flex their "adaptability, initiative, and risk-taking" muscles.
Another element discussed was the importance of transparency in the design of new spaces, in both a figurative and literal sense. When designing new spaces, the presenters counseled transparency with regard to the principle stakeholders: the students and teachers that will inhabit these new environments, as well as the parents who will be relied upon to financially support the process. The Barrie School posted design schematics on butcher paper along the hallways of the school and invited these constituencies to comment on the images, each group using a different colored marker. The feedback received ultimately led to some significant design changes, as well as the introduction of new elements, such as a fully functional outdoor classroom.
In terms of physical transparency, the Barrie School used glass where ever possible to unite the interior and exterior spaces, and also nanawalls (folding glass walls and folding walls with whiteboard surfaces) that can be easily opened, closed, rearranged and manipulated. They also chose to use desks on wheels so that room configurations could be easily changed.
What were some drawbacks and challenges that they encountered along the way? The presenters cited that moveable walls introduced acoustic problems where sound from one space would penetrate to another. Some children and adults, especially those with ADD or focus issues were very distracted by the ambient noise. But, they countered, isn't this the situation to which students need to acclimate as work environments grow increasingly open? Another challenge they encountered was that they considered technology integration into their plan too late. They counseled technology needs to be discussed from the earliest stages. Seemingly insignificant details, such as where to locate electric plugs in a flexible space so that power cords do not hinder the movement of the desks, need to inform design choices from their infancy. Finally, we discussed the issue of security in a transparent building with lots of entry points. Charlie Abelmann admitted that this has been a challenge, and that it is important to create refuge areas that have no lines of sight in every space.
A major theme of the workshop which I consider extremely pertinent to the independent school audience is that when designing a new space, whether it is a simple classroom or an entire new campus, the design should tie into the mission, or as Charlie Abelmann put it, "curate the core values of the school". In the planning stages, the leadership team at Barrie School got together and wrote a fictitious press release that highlighted the design elements of the school and how the new buildings would be used, what type of learning would go on in these spaces, and how it reinforced the school's mission and purpose. This was essentially a backwards design plan for the building. The fictitious press release helped guide the architects and the school when they were faced with difficult choices and it created a vision that informed the professional development program for teachers in the new space.
All in all this was a fantastic workshop that provide some great thought candy and some practical examples of innovative design.