"Wow, this is just like the Google offices!" That was one of my favorite quotes from a student this past year about the classroom that I designed. Student-centered classrooms are becoming the rage all across the country, from kindergarten to college. While many shifts in education seem to just be a fad, I hope this is one will stay.
I attended a conference in Orlando in January 2015 and was captivated by how many school systems were changing their classrooms. I sat through several presentations about rooms with movable furniture, walls covered floor to ceiling with whiteboards, and spaces that included bean-bags, sofas, and comfortable chairs. When I returned from the conference, I asked my administration if I could change around my computer lab. I was teaching in a classroom with 33 computers, lined up in rows from front to back and along the sides of the classroom. Historically, the students who sat in the back of the room didn't do as well as those in the front. They lacked concentration and it was hard for me to see them behind rows and rows of computer monitors. I had been working on changing my teaching style to be more student-centered and project-oriented, and now it was time to change the physical classroom as well.
I ordered semi-circle tables that could be put together to make ovals, new comfortable chairs, a rug, and beanbags. The county bought me a laptop cart with 33 laptops. I was told to wait to change around my room until after state testing was over (June 1, 2015) because they needed to use my lab. Meanwhile, the students assembled the chairs to replace the squeaky, dirty ones that were currently in the lab. After testing was complete, the administration didn't want me to change the lab since it was an ideal testing set up and so the hunt for a new space began. We had a large room with cubicles in it that floating teachers used as a classroom and other teachers used during their planning time. After a large down-scale in faculty a few years ago, there were few teachers using this space currently. The room, with huge windows on two sides, was 50 square feet larger than my lab (which was already one of the biggest rooms). The decision was made to clear out the cubicles and turn it into my new classroom.
Over the summer, my two children, and a college student helped me to build eleven semi-circle tables, an L-shaped desk, and a large cabinet. We found a good spot for the rug and beanbags, tucked into a corner. I hung posters about coding from Code.org and anxiously awaited the students' arrival.
At the time I was the only computer science teacher, and I often taught the same students for two or three years in a row. They knew I was setting up a new room but didn't know the location. The looks on their faces as they came in were priceless. They loved being able to move around the room with laptops and being able to go sit in a bean bag to code in peace. They often spoke about how much nicer it was than the old classroom. The new students repeatedly said it was the best classroom in the whole school. Most of our school is not air-conditioned and the fact that mine was and was so spacious and comfortable made it their favorite place to be.
Why go to all this trouble? Is it worth it? We have taught with rows and hard chairs in lecture-style for so many years. That is how I was taught computer science and I turned out okay. Students today are different than we were. They are constantly bombarded with technology and choice. We are working to ensure every student has his/her own laptop/tablet/etc. We are changing instruction to accommodate multiple learning styles. Corporate offices are recognizing that people work more efficiently in a comfortable, changeable environment. Even some universities are changing around their traditional lecture halls. I teach night-classes at Loyola University in Baltimore and have always had a hands-on, student-centered approach, but it is difficult to teach like that in traditional rows of chairs with desks attached. It takes a lot of imagination and almost as much money to redesign classrooms. Most districts are changing one classroom at a time as they can afford it.
The proof that this new design works lies with the students. There is no traditional front or back of my classroom. I have whiteboards that I project onto or write on but I rarely stand in front of them to speak. Students can move their chairs to where they can see or hear me best. While my original intention was to have six students around each oval, in one class there were ten because they all wanted to work together. If some students are absent, often others will move around so no one is left alone. I encourage collaboration and movement and the students use it to their advantage.
I piloted the new AP Computer Science Principles course last year and there are a lot of hands-on maker-space type assignments that this room lends itself to beautifully. At least half of the new CS curriculum for AP Computer Science Principles and the Foundations of Computer Science courses that we offer are not centered around programming. We have room to spread out and make posters, binary sending devices, and human-sized spanning trees. Standard computer labs barely offer enough space for a notebook beside the keyboard. Students want to work together and feel more comfortable moving around than they do in a typical lab setting. Too often CS students work in their own silos—a set-up like this encourages collaboration. Teaching in this environment also makes me rethink my methods. I can more easily work with small groups, call a pow-wow on the bean bags, or grab a chair and scoot right up to the table with students. I rarely sit at my desk, or stand in front of the entire class. It makes relating to each student easier, instead of typically knowing the students in the front of the room better than the back. I have learned from teaching at Loyola University about the cura personalis (care for the whole person) approach to teaching and in this environment it is easy to apply.
With a comfortable environment seems to come more comfort with the material as well. Students are more likely to ask each other for help when they are surrounded by peers instead of staring at the heads of the students in front of them. Having laptops instead of desktop computers discouraged them from playing games since some days we didn't even get the computers out of the cart. If a student wants to work more independently, they can grab a bean bag in the corner, but more often two of them will go together and pair program. Giving students more of a choice of how they learn helps make them more willing to learn. Giving them a safe and comfortable environment to learn in helps foster creativity and innovation, both of which are essential in CS courses.
There are other benefits to the new classroom, aside from learning CS. We teach on an 80-minute block schedule and my lunch is 30-minutes into my 3rd period class. Lunch is often the most stressful part of a student's day, socially speaking. My students asked if they can stay in my room for lunch; for some I wrote a permanent pass for when they need to buy lunch and bring it back to the room. Over time, they have invited their friends to come eat lunch with them as well. They dubbed my classroom the Satellite Cafeteria 2.0. The fact that students felt safe and welcomed meant more to me than not being able to eat lunch with my colleagues.
Another piece of proof was when other teachers used my classroom. One period, every other day, an English and creative writing teacher taught in my classroom and her thoughts on the space are worth sharing. "I think students benefit from a collaborative environment no matter the subject. The traditional classroom feels alienating, rigid, unyielding in the face of 21st century learning where we're asking students to share and progress together." — Meekah Hopkins.
We have a few labs and laptop carts that teachers can sign out for their classes but they are often booked weeks in advance. A math teacher with a particularly challenging class asked if she could use my room during my planning period one day. Afterwards she told me that the students were much calmer, easier to teach, and more willing to work together than in her classroom. To me that means more than anything I have observed. If all students had a welcoming, comfortable, safe environment in which to learn, imagine the possibilities! Other teachers are encouraged to take a look at my classroom to think about how they could change their current rooms to be more student-centered.
I don't think that every teacher needs to go to the extremes that I did to redesign their classroom. Even little changes like comfortable chairs, a corner where students can work individually, or movable seating are a great start. I hope this is one educational trend that continues far into the future.
Dulaney High School
255 E Padonia Rd
Timonium, Maryland 21093 USA
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