Guest post by Dwight Carter:
In most cases, one of the last places affected by school reform is the schoolhouse itself. It’s expensive to completely redesign an entire school, and we are used to school looking a certain way: long corridors, square classrooms, rows of lockers, trophy cases lining the walls of the lobby, a large bland cafeteria, narrow stairways, and little natural light.
Today’s learners–Millennials and the “iGeneration”–need a new kind of school. They are wired differently than any generation that has come before them, due in part to the integration of technology in everyday life. Millennials include those born between 1977 and 1998 or by some definitions 1982 to 2000.
According to The Learning Café and American Demographics, today’s generation of students are creative and collaborative by nature; they don’t know life without connectivity; they multitask; they want positive relationships with their teacher, administrator, or boss; they want things personalized to their interests; and they want to rewrite the rules. They see institutions as irrelevant, and schools are often seen as institutions to them. Understandably, traditional school design hinders how today’s learner want to interact and engage in school.
At Gahanna Lincoln High School, we were facing a challenge: With 2400 students, we were at capacity and had the opportunity to do something creative to provide more space and, at the same time, meet the needs of today’s learner.
With the vision of former Superintendents Gregg Morris and Mark White, along with a team of curriculum coordinators, business directors, and highly qualified teachers, we built Clark Hall. Clark Hall is a 51,000-square-foot, three-story work of art. It doesn’t resemble a typical American high school at all; rather it’s more like an innovative office building. The goal was to create an open, modern, bright space that evokes creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, choice and fun. It houses fourteen classrooms, each with its own conference room, enterprise strength connectivity, natural light, laptops for every student, and collaborative spaces in hallways so students are able to use the entire space for learning.
We traded in the traditional rows of desks and chairs for soft, brightly colored modular furniture, some exercise balls, a few rocking chairs, and a couple of Adirondack chairs. We created two large commons areas that can be used for just about anything we want: smaller classroom space or large presentation space. A few of the classrooms have colorful carpet squares that make up a soft seating area of the sort you might find in a modern coffee house or redesigned university student union. We abandoned the “bargain-basement beige” paint for splashes of primary colors and bright white. We worked with the architects to include as much natural light as possible to evoke energy and creativity.
With flexibility built into the daily schedule, teachers have more time to interact with students on an individual basis, students feel more relaxed and are more compelled to engage in the learning process, and collaboration among students is the norm. Additionally, collaboration among teachers of different content areas has become a natural part of the day because they are not separated by department. We have an art teacher next to AP psychology and personal finance teachers, for example.
Because today’s learners like and need structure, we work with them at the beginning of each school year to develop expectations for the space; as a result, we have few discipline problems. Teachers no longer hover over students to make sure they are on task. Students appreciate the freedom and understand this freedom is a byproduct of responsible behavior.
Clark Hall has inspired change on our main campus as well. One of the main hubs of most schools and universities is the library. We wanted our library to have the same feel as Clark Hall, so our Librarian, Ann Gleek, dreamt big and made some significant improvements. Changes like removing some of the book shelves, painting the walls, and removing some of the traditional furniture have made for a more social, collaborative and inviting environment for students. There is still a quiet room for study, but the largest part of the space is open and collaborative.
Educational reform must include reforming or transforming the physical learning environment. According to Daniel Pink, design is one of the elements of the right brain that we must tap into. We have to look differently at the space we have now and spruce things up… a lot… for the sake of learning.
I will discuss this in more detail as well as its impact on student learning during my presentation at Ignite 2014!
Dwight Carter (@Dwight_Carter) is principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio. Dwight was named an NASSP Digital Principal in 2013. He will be presenting Digitally Creative Learning Environments on Friday, February 7 at Ignite ’14 in Dallas. For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.