Pushing out Walls and Shunning Desks for New Ways of Learning

Pushing out Walls and Shunning Desks for New Ways of Learning

Back in November 2016, voters in California approved a $9 billion statewide school construction and renovation bond that had the potential to stimulate the redesign of schools in that state over the next decade.

California already had some examples of how classrooms and instruction is likely to change. One of the examples is Palo Alto High School’s Media Arts Center, a $10 million project that took six years to develop and opened in 2014.

The new building, which houses the high school’s journalism and other media programs, is rooted in the intersection between what the newsroom of the future will look like and what the classroom of the future will look like, according to Paul Kandell, journalism teacher and advisor at the school.

The Palo Alto experience is one of five schools and/or school districts provided as detailed case studies in the new report from Simba Information—Schools of the Future, Part 2: The Physical Space, which examines the interaction of learning and the physical environment. Schools of the Future, Part 2: The Physical Space can stand alone, or it can serve as a complementary companion toSchools of the Future, Part 1: Curriculum and Content, which focuses on learning and learning resources and was released in February.

These schools and districts are embracing new leaning principles that are rooted in the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning, founded in 2002. Embracing this change brings a transformation from teacher-led to student-led learning, an emphasis on hands-on learning and collaboration, a wealth of technology and other tools to foster inquiry, and a physical space that supports these pedagogical changes.

Working out the Kinks

While the curriculum was in place in Palo Alto’s new media center before construction began, a few challenges arose as the school got used to the new building, which features a large atrium as a common area. For instance, finding the right furniture took some experimentation, with three or four different sets tried over the first four years. The first iteration included beanbags and two-foot wide cubes that were reconfigurable, for example, but the cubes got old fast and the beanbags were problematic. Students are encouraged to eat in the common areas if they want to, which creates a real community vibe but also issues with cleanliness. The beanbags ended up being put into a closet and taken out only for special occasions.

While the building was designed for the journalism curriculum, other students outside of media arts use the atrium for events such as film festivals, student debates, community and school group meetings, large presentations, and the like. The school’s special education program runs a café out of the center’s kitchen twice a week, which gives them real-world job training and more opportunities for community in the media arts department as people can come in for coffee.

Schools of the future typically include plenty of open spaces, including learning commons, makerspaces and wide hallways to encourage collaboration.

The new spaces are a physical embodiment of new learning. In the 21st Century Learning Framework, the learning environment and curriculum and instruction, standards and assessments, and professional development come together to support all of the outcomes.

The learning space is designed both to stimulate new ways of learning and to facilitate that learning through collaboration, inquiry and project-based methods.