“It isn’t just about the walls, it isn’t just about the furniture, it isn’t about the cool carpet colors. It’s about the understanding that when we designed this space it was about the kids.” –Cindy Turner, Teacher, North Kansas City Schools
DO YOU REMEMBER?
Do you remember your elementary school experience? For us, and we suspect for many, we had a “homeroom” teacher in whose classroom we spent much of the day. We sat in tidy rows, often in alphabetical order, and received our lessons. One hour we learned Math, the next English, then some Science, and so on. We always looked forward to recess and lunch where we could talk with friends, run and play. The purpose, it seemed, was to learn “stuff”, get along, and prepare for the next academic year and grade level. That next grade was pretty much the same daily experience but in a different room, with a different teacher and with more advanced coursework. Sound familiar? Or, maybe like a rather famous Bill Murray movie?
This context, this “M.O.” is still very prevalent today, and was — for a host of reasons — dismissed during the planning and design process for new learning environments for the North Kansas City Schools’ SAGE (Students in Academically Gifted Education) program.
The project began when the City of Gladstone and the School District decided to collaborate on a new innovation campus to provide space for businesses and district programming. We worked with them to develop an interior fit-out solution that rejects the traditional “sage on stage” as the primary teaching style and supports what research tells us about how students learn best.
In an article for MindShift, the author points to research that demonstrates that movement is essential to learning and that frequent movement correlates to academic achievement later in life. Research also demonstrates that deeper learning occurs when students apply classroom knowledge to real-world problems. Additionally, in an article on the topic of powerful learning for Edutopia, the authors reference the growing body of knowledge that supports inquiry-based and cooperative learning as ways to boost student achievement. These articles and other studies point to the fluidity of the student experience and that we as designers need to incorporate spaces that are conscious of the impact the physical environment has on student learning, emotional development, and wellness.
AN INNOVATIVE PROCESS
As we set out to design SAGE in a way that truly encompassed both the latest research on learning while supporting the district’s vision, our team implemented a collaborative planning and design process to support these goals. We led a think-tank-style group of administrators, faculty members and students through visioning sessions that included an “activity mapping” exercise to unpack expectations around the varied types of “work” students should engage in (direct instruction, small collaborative groups, quiet study, interdisciplinary projects, etc.). Interestingly, responses indicated a modest five percent of a student’s day would be in direct instruction before they broke into small groups, pursued areas of interest, etc. With the results, we supplied the group a physical model of each floor plan and asked our collaborators to walk through the building as though they were a student, considering flexibility, wall and furniture placement, areas for quiet study, etc. In addition, the faculty visited future-ready learning and work environments and used Pinterest to hone in on the ideas that would work best for SAGE. It became apparent that the space needed to support self-directed, collaborative, and interdisciplinary projects.
The result is an experiential environment that supports peer-to-peer collaboration by offering a variety of settings for students and teachers to self-select, based on individual learning needs. SAGE features varying zones for direct instruction, collaboration, individual learning, socializing, and active movement. This wide range of activities is supported by specialized areas including maker spaces, a robotics lab, a broadcast studio, presentation spaces, gender-neutral bathrooms and collaborative learning studios. Each space offers visual connections to neighboring learning environments. These visual connections increase interdisciplinary thinking among students as they move freely throughout the space. No longer stationary, teachers have continuous views of the children as they interact; the majority of their time is split between researching, creating, performing, and collaborating with their peers on projects.
Below, SAGE students and staff share in their own words how this future-ready learning environment responds to the needs of current and future users and we describe how the space supports these ideas. This is SAGE: their space, their story.
“We dreamed big and the result of that has been even bigger than our dreams.”-Julia Alsobrook, Advanced Education Programs Coordinator
We helped Julia and her team dream big by creating a space that acts as a living prototype and is flexible enough to accommodate continuously changing tools and new methods of teaching. Perfect for developing new concepts, it supports physical ergonomics and allows students to work individually and collaboratively. Wall nooks and high-backed furniture support students who need to work individually. Carpeted areas allow for active learning as students sit comfortably and move freely as needed. Messy learning takes place over polished concrete, offering easy cleanup and the sense that students can really use the space without fear of making a mess. SAGE students work in this hands-on environment designed to foster their curiosity, all while learning how to apply their skills in a real-world context.
The plan features a dedicated faculty collaboration space further increasing interaction between faculty and disciplines. With access to a greater variation of spaces, each teacher can choose the work style that best suits them.
“That light turning on is, like, the coolest thing ever on the first day. They (we) have bathrooms with a light that turns red when you go in it. That’s like the coolest thing ever! That’d be so useful at my house.” -Erin Hosely, Student
In order to support the district’s desire for a fully inclusive space, SAGE features gender-neutral, single-occupancy, fully enclosed toilet stalls. Each stall has a light above the door that changes color – green when the stall is available and red when it is occupied. The sinks are in a common area, allowing anyone to access them at any time. The teachers championed this forward-thinking solution, in order to make all spaces comfortable and equitable throughout the school.
“I think it’s really amazing. I can use my creativity.” -Cassandra Moliniaro, Student
According to author Daniel H. Pink, the future belongs to those who are creative and right-brained skills such as design and storytelling will become just as important if not more so than traditional left-brained skills. We designed SAGE to support creativity by providing studios that accommodate a variety of activities including individual work and group exercises. These spaces support different learning styles and teaching methods and are outfitted with mobile furniture, wireless networking, and easily accessible power and storage cabinets. These state-of-the-art spaces provide a completely agile environment that is student-centered, hands-on, and one-of-a-kind.
Overall wellness is supported as built spaces are kept to the core of the building, providing clear sightlines to the outdoors. An outdoor teaching terrace is accessible to both teachers and students. A storm shelter in the lower level has the capacity to serve the entire population of the building, furthering the resilient aspects of the center.
A WAY FORWARD
Technological advancements will most likely cause profound changes to business models and future means of employment. Autonomous Transportation Specialist, Drone Dispatcher, Robot Counselor, Urban Agriculturalist, Privacy Manager, Octogenarian Service Provider – these are just some of the jobs that children today may have in the near future. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 65% of today’s grade school kids will end up at jobs that have yet to be invented. If trends continue this way, the key to preparing students may be a shift from the traditional model of simply acquiring knowledge to that of using knowledge within the learning context. SAGE is a true example of a learning environment designed with enough flexibility to support both current and future modes of learning and represents how research-based practices can be used to create facilities where students take control of their education and that best prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow – whatever they may be.