Thinking Outside the Box: Transforming Spaces & Learning

Since our middle school building opened in 2000, there have been very significant shifts in our conception of how students learn. The requirements of our learning environment today are well summed up by Prakash Nair of Fielding Nair International, the designers of our new high school: “21st century learning is learner-centered, inquiry-based, technology-rich, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and personalized. It’s about teaching students to become agile and lifelong learners so they have the skills to adapt to change, and the classroom formations of the past are far too limited to support these multiple learning modalities. Education spaces need to grow beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom and contain the varied spaces, flexible furnishings, transparency, and technological tools that push students to become better independent thinkers, collaborators, and problem solvers.”

This vision for learning, then, is inextricably linked to the design of school learning spaces. If having the luxury of starting with a clean slate – which we did with great success with our high school – then it is clear that agile, dynamic, multi-purpose spaces are essential, but what could we do with a traditional building of locker-lined hallways and corridors that was just over a decade old? Fortunately, the original design of our middle school building provided some large corridor spaces, coupled with spacious classrooms, so it wasn’t exactly the “cells and bells” of the traditional learning environment that architect, Randy Fielding, rails against. Starting with the learning principles, and working closely with our students and teachers, we set out to renovate our building over several summers to create the kind of 21st century learning space we believed was needed.

Our desire, in summary, was to provide: new, flexible student collaboration spaces; an Improved work-space flow between classrooms and learning commons; lighting and furnishing that is more conducive to learning; opportunities to maximise the potential of the existing building design; the potential to utilise the sharing of teacher resources and skills. We also know from brain research that learning is increasingly social and that the lines between social interaction and formal learning are more blurred than ever before. Our learning spaces needed to also reflect this. Vitally, we knew we had the faculty with the instructional talents, the collaborative ethos, the educational technology prowess (or readiness to learn), the learning philosophy, and a culture of willingness to embrace change to make this happen. Having ensured that the learning focus would guide each decision, here is some of what we learned:

  1. By emphasising the principle of reduced storage space to reflect environmental priorities and our high-tech environment, we were able to reduce our “locker footprint” by 50%, thereby literally making room for us to remove all of our classroom walls and replace them with transparent, flexible walls and doors.
  2. Natural light and improved, modern lighting systems have made the learning commons areas more inviting and more conducive to learning and to physical well-being.
  3. A mix of flexible, comfortable, informal and formal furnishings provided students with varied opportunities to learn according to their preferred learning style. While there is an emphasis on collaboration, there are also spaces for individual learning and quiet reflection.
  4. By removing office spaces that had been designated for departmental faculty and textbook storage, we were able to dedicate these significant spaces to student learning and create new, flexible opportunities for faculty to collaborate in interdisciplinary teams.
  5. Fears that glass walls would prove too distracting for students proved unfounded. To an ADHD student, there must be nothing more distracting than being surrounded by four walls. To colleagues, parents, prospective new families and visitors, we have, literally made learning visible.

Over three summers, with the financial backing of our supportive Board, we have substantially transformed our school both physically and pedagogically, without having to close the school, without the need for unreasonable financial investment. We have future-proofed our school building for another generation – through the agility of design – and now plan to add a MakerSpace and design lab in the final phase of renovation.

The main things we learned? You do not need a new building in order to engage in innovative approaches to learning; you do not need to spend massive amounts of money to transform a hallway into a collaborative, dynamic learning space. The recurring theme of all good schools shines through: it is the people, not the facilities, that are the key to a great school, but if you have those great teachers, they deserve the very best facilities in which to work.

We asked some of our students and teachers, without prompting or preparation, how they feel about our new learning spaces. The short video below is the result.