(This post originally appeared on this blog over three years ago. Now that we are preparing to open the new PHS, it is interesting to see that we managed to capture some of the best features of the schools we visited when we were researching school design.)
I am a very lucky educator. I have the opportunity be a part of building a new school for our learning community. What an awesome task, responsibility, and opportunity. As part of this undertaking, I have been able to visit modern schools and not only see the physical spaces, but also observe the learning activities that occur in them. It was so interesting hear to a lead science teacher tell us about students studying cancer cells and looking for ways to disrupt their growth. She told us how one particular student had the opportunity to work with bacteria and try to disrupt their communication patterns. His research had progressed so far that he was able to meet with several Nobel Prize winning scientists at science exposition that he was invited to attend. At first I was amazed that high school students were involved is this kind of research, but as it these stories sunk in, I could not help but feel that the students in my school were being robbed of these types of learning opportunities. Should we simply say we cannot afford to put in a laboratory where this type of research can be done and leave it at that? I am determined to find a way that our students who wish to study and research such topics can do so in a local lab. At the very least, we must build spaces that promote active learning where Science is a verb and students can explore and discover. Active learning must take place in all subject areas and we must seek to integrate them where we can.
The above photos were taken in Niles North High School’s state of the art STEM lab. It is a large learning space with a corner “think tank”. This is where short, whole group learning activities take place such as a like a mini lecture or a student presentation. The makeup of the room shows what is important–active learning. The rest of the space is dominated by large tables, deep sinks, and a multitude of tools to experiment with. A scientist’s dream. We will not be able to replicate this room. I am not so sure we would want to, but we need to see that learning spaces need to be flexible to accommodate different kinds of learning and learners.
Some of the schools we have visited have been very traditional. The learning environments were not much different than what we have used in our school for the last 100+ years. Rooms as boxes, filled with student desks, and a central learning focus that cast the teacher as information giver/subject expert. Other schools have moved away from the traditional design and have spaces that suggest other models of learning.
The four photos above were take at the the Columbus Signature Academy High Tech High. The school uses a project based approach to engage its students. What stood out to me at this school was how the student work and the vision of students collaborating were the architectural features. Learning studios were transparent with movable glass hallway walls, that when moved created very large learning spaces for large group instruction or presentations. The hallways were filled with different seating configurations. Some of them resembled restaurant booths, others were library like configurations with comfortable furniture. Design shaping function or function shaping design….either way the way students learn in these environments reflects a social, transparent, and integrated approach that allows students to do real, meaningful work in ways they will outside of the “school” when they matriculate to other endeavors. Exciting times indeed!