Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How Physical Spaces Change Learning- an Important Impact of BOLD

I've thought about this for some time.  When I first began teaching at the Bergen County Academies, I was assigned to teach in a room with 22 computers all placed up against 3 walls of my classroom and chairs facing the computers.  I also had the two 4 by 6 tables in the center and chairs (roughly 10) around them.  Rarely did I teach a class there with less than 14 and more than 26 (although I once had an elective (Wednesday project, the entire school shuts down for about 2 1/2 hours wednesday mornings for PBL style courses, awesome idea we should all be robbing them of) with about 40 and quite frankly I had to beg them to allow me to run it with all the kids.  The dynamics of my rather spacious room at first intimidated me.  However, it soon grew on me.  At first I was worried since students would not be able to type on their computers while listening to me lecture they would not be able to focus well in class.  I insisted they turn their chairs to face front and take handwritten notes if need be.  As I transitioned from mostly lecturing to more PBL style teaching and group work, I learned to love the tables in the middle more and more and found the easy access to computers for students to work on projects awesome.  I no longer found the room set up an impediment to my success, but rather a huge help in what I wanted to accomplish.

When I interviewed for my job at New Milford High School, one of the assignments Eric Sheninger asked us to do upon leaving the interview was to design an ideal space for student learning in an already existing classroom.  While I am not in love with the way schools are currently build with such rigid classroom spaces of equal size throughout a building, I was forced to create something with what was already there.  I drew two 4 by 6 rectangular smart tables and one 4 by 8 smart table in the center, a computer station in the back left corner with 6 computers,  2 bookshelves/cubbies in the back right corner, a small rug space in the front right corner and a teacher direction station with 5-6 seats and an overhead/smartboard set up in the front left corner.  While I never quite got that room set up at New Milford, the Director of Technology, Ron Watson (who is seriously amazing), did manage to secure me 6 computer stations that I was able to place in the back of my classroom (radiators where to the right of my classroom and wall to wall cabinets were to the left which made corner spaces impossible to use).  I was also able to transform a rather traditional style desk into a group space by putting 5 together 2 in a row against 2 others in a row and the last desk up against them perpendicularly.  I did this with my entire set, producing 7 collaborative work stations.  I was never able to fully move my desk into the center of the room, but I was able to place chairs in front of it so kids could come up to work with me collectively on a project or assignment.

When I came to Magen David, one of the first things I remember was how unbelievably traditional the classrooms physically looked both in the furniture that was there and the way the classrooms were arranged.  BOLD (our grant in blended learning) has had a significant impact on changing this.  The classroom Rabbi Bitton and I designed created centers for a rotational model, which necessitated different furniture, a different structure and classroom set up, and a lot more technology in the classroom that ever before.  This has had a profound impact on the dynamics of the very class itself.

While the old set up was a lot more conducive for lectures, the new set up leant itself to a more collaborative class that was much less teacher focused and a lot more learning and action focused.   No longer did the teacher have a barrier between themselves and the students.  No longer did the student have to turn their head to see and hear fellow student in a "back row" make a remark or answer a question.  No longer did students depend on the teacher as much as the sole content delivery system and learning guide.  In fact, they began to rely a lot more on themselves and each other.  The actual physical structure of the class had a profound impact on the actual way students were learning.

Students are now asking each other more questions before they ask the teacher.  They are now thinking more reflectively about problems and concepts.  They are more "discussion oriented" and work together better.  They have begun to be more independent.  In fact, students are now driving lessons by really taking on their own assignments and monitoring their own progress and goals.

As a skill based school, Magen David is profoundly focused on helping student prepare for college and career.  It is precisely this type of learning environment which lends itself so naturally to the school's mission.  In fact, the few times a day the BOLD teachers were not occupying the room where often taken up by fellow teachers begging to teach in those classroom for the same reason- they wanted collaborative learning spaces, they knew or heard of its affect.  While this is still a pilot program in our school, I am pleased to announce that we are adding more BOLD classes next year and thus necessitating more bold classrooms.  While our exact furniture may change over the years slowly, moving towards a more modern, clustered in class groupings appear to be the focus.  Perhaps even taking a page from the Harkness model will have its day (large boardroom esk tables in each room).  Regardless, having seen just how incredible the transformation has been and I'm loving it.