Let’s Design a Classroom for the 21st Century and Beyond!
We know the Industrial Age classroom was designed for teacher lectures, for student memorization and recitation, right? But aren't you dismayed that this antiquated cookie cutter process is perpetuated in the 21st Century, around the country, especially in inner city schools? (footnote 1).
Why are children still lectured to and forced to sit on rigid chairs at desks in boring, cramped boxes—with garishly colored walls chock full of distracting visual ‘noise’, with harsh overhead lighting and aggravating acoustics? How can we possibly expect them to learn in this kind of disruptive environment?
All Kids Have Unique, Inquiring Minds
Since each child has his/her own way of processing learning cookie cutter simply doesn’t cut it: Plus recent neuroscience research tells us that active (versus passive) learning is the best way to promote agency and self-determination in each and every student.
Yet kids' natural curiosity and inquisitiveness is often tamped down with our current system. Squelched. So by empowering students to become their own teacher, kids learn in their own way, at their own pace. And when the physical classroom is a balanced ecosystem we can nurture self-discovery in many ways (see chart below).
We’ve started to rethink Ms. Morrison’s room 220, a 5th grade classroom at PS 20, a progressive inner city Brooklyn elementary school. This is our pilot project (scroll down for details). And we’re well on our way. Ms. Morrison and all teachers are eager to be released from the antiquated, exhausting and tedious role of lecturer. Let’s hear it for the teachers!
Let’s make the 5th grade classroom a haven – where students arrive ready, eager and able to learn.
5th grade is when we win or lose kids’ hearts and minds. It’s the age when children are most impressionable, when they emerge as abstract, critical thinkers. And yet 5th graders still spend their entire day in one classroom with the same classmates and teacher. They still like to be read to. It’s a kind of second home but, like any home, it can be quite dysfunctional, messy, chaotic and distracting. Not a balanced learning environment.
5th graders are also starting to see themselves in relationships beyond their families. They are eager to test their wings by taking on more ‘adult’ responsibilities, to connect consequences to actions. As they leave 5th grade—they move on from their homey classroom for middle school, to multiple teachers and classrooms: They are at the end of an era. (footnote 2) This is a critical transition: If it goes well they will be more apt to graduate from high school, if it doesn't go well statistics show they may well drop out.
The Inquiring Minds’ approach promotes agency and self determination. We use a design thinking process that works backwards from our goals. Early prototyping of ideas and built in feedback loops are part of our efficient, effective design development process.
We are co-creative in our methods working in cross disciplinary teams including the school principal, interior designers, design thinkers, architects and, very importantly, the teacher and the students themselves. We're using low tech tools as well as strategic use of high tech to make these changes as economical and practical as possible.
PS 20 Students Know What They Need – a Balanced Ecosystem
We conducted an experiment with 50 soon-to-be 5th graders and their teachers at PS 20. These kids told us in no uncertain terms what works and what doesn’t with uncanny accuracy.
For instance, they told us:
They need to be heard (yet the room’s too noisy); we're providing inexpensive wireless microphones. They love this organizing tool!
They need visual calm (yet the room is too bright and crowded); we're putting in a dimmer for the lights and taking away the clutter. Inexpensive sliding magnetic data walls reduce the clutter of ephemera, showcasing current projects. This enhances, instead of detracts from, learning. (footnote 4)
They need to move more (yet they slouch, pout, stuck in rigid chairs); we're changing the seating and overall use of space. Movable, modular furniture allow students to work in groups, to pair up and help teach each other.
They need to be able to gather in a circle (yet there’s no space); we're creating an imaginative gathering space based on ideas created by the teams in the charrette.
And we've formed a Kids' Council made up of PS 20 students to guide us in the transformation of room 220. Watch our Website for updates (inquiringmindsusa.com).
Our team is developing strategies to help kids connect consequences to actions. We are helping each kid develop a self-image as an engaged “worker” and citizen — aided by a supportive classroom environment. (footnote 3) These are the kind of strategies folded into the creative work of the team in the Inquiring Minds’ process: Good design cultivates inquiry-based learning in the classroom.
Beyond PS 20 - Additional Research
We’ve interviewed hundreds of passionate, committed elementary school teachers around the country in the last year who’ve told us how their own classroom eco systems are out of whack. Their views, by and large, jive with our PS 20 research: nationally, teachers are daunted but energized to make changes in the way their physical classroom functions and promotes learning. In addition, they see the strong connections between these changes and the seismic shifts in pedagogy that Common Core standards call for. How do teachers practice student-driven inquiring-based learning while making this shift? Transforming the physical room will help. Room 220 is just the start!
Room 220: Reaping the Harvest of a Balanced Ecosystem
During the fall semester we’ll study the dynamics of two classrooms (room 220 and the control, room 222) and share our findings with our team. We’ll sum up the results on our website as we work to test this new, practical, holistic way of designing the classroom more widely.
Activities, Timeline and Budget Snapshots
May 2014 Completed: Workshop with 2 4th grade classes (50 students)
Together we determined what is needed in a learning environment, what works and what doesn't according to the kids and teacher.
July 2014 Completed: Charrette with teachers, students and designers for the redesign of room 220.
Our full day charrette yielded 3 solid concepts for remaking room 220. After reviewing the concepts generated by our teams we are analyzing each concept to understand how it maximizes flexibility in an active classroom; in how it supports collaborative leadership between teacher and student; and promotes inquiry-based learning and self-determination.
Late August-December 2014 Transformation
The Inquiring Minds team is expanding to include volunteers from the
community to transform room 220. Students
and teachers will start to witness changes in classroom dynamics upon their return.
We are focused on extreme time, cost efficiency, and DIY solutions to allow for quick implementation and realistic replication. Once reconciled, plans will be drawn up and all materials sourced.
Early 2015 Analyze results for rollout
We will monitor and compare and contrast the learning in room 220 and the control room 222 during the entire 2014-2015 school year. Our team will review the results including year-end grades, behavioral issues and self-assessment surveys to determine what interventions were most effective.
Our team will then create a fully illustrated, designed and vetted 'how to' workbook to be distributed to New York City’s Department of Education and beyond.
This will include
• tools for practical replication
• a budget for classroom design
• an evaluation of changes and efficiencies realized by this new design.
Illustrative Budget Total $17,930
Research, workshops, and materials $500
Architectural plans and project management $800
Physical classroom transformation $7,000
Preliminary projections of purchases 24 ergonomic chairs / modular desks, paint, new sink or water
feature, moveable sliding white wall panels, wireless microphones, sound absorbing ceiling fixtures, organizing system for books and materials, system for displaying student work throughout the semester, stackable stools and rug for student/teacher gathering place.
Donations by teachers, parents and students, etc. Organizing, sorting, detail painting, materials, charrette tools (Materials for the Arts), overall painting (DoE custodial team)
Videography, camcorders, editing $2500
Monitoring and evaluation of results $1500
Analyze and synthesize $1500
Report and recommendations $2500
Overhead 10% of above (covering Kickstarter and Amazon charges) $1630
How Do We Spell Success?
• Ms. Morrison reports that, because room 220 is now a balanced ecosystem,
• She is more confident and comfortable in her role in the classroom.
• She reports significant learning breakthroughs with individual students including with special education students.
• We see more democratic processes in place.
• Students are more engaged in the classroom and beyond.
• Students are retaining and applying more of what they’ve learned. This will be demonstrated by overall behavioral improvements (including with special education students).
• We verify better performance on assessments and more collaboration.
• We expect students will ask/answer more and better questions. They will start to teach each other and themselves.
• Success will mean higher attendance.
• Ms. Morrison will report that teaching has become more fun and rewarding, that she can better connect with her students in a less stressed environment.
• Students will say that they love to learn in their classroom, room 220.
• Supported by our workbook, schools form teams to make their classrooms into balanced ecosystem across the USA.
Footnote / reference / bibliography
1 Childhood Years Ages 6 through 12 Karen DeBord, PhD, Child Development Specialist, Published by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
2 Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom, New York Times, June 2014
3 New York City school dropout rates http://www.wnyc.org/story/302463-nyc-graduation-rates-stable-at-60-percent-achievement-gap-remains-wide/2013
4 A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed, Evolutionary Science, David Sloan Wilson, Richard A. Kauffman Jr., Miriam S. Purdy, Published: November 16, 201
Risks and challenges
We must work within the guidelines established by the Department of School Facilities which is part of the Department of Education (DoE) in New York City. This has its limitations, due to unions and strict safety regulations and standards.
The DoE has been very cooperative to date. They just have very limited funds and resources but as Mr B, the chief custodian at PS 20, says, “We’re committed to helping the kids.” We say, “We are all on the same page!”
In addition to the above - your name will be on the ‘thank you’ banner made by Inquiring Minds and the kids of PS 20’s room 220 displayed in the hallway of PS 20 (we’ll send a photo to prove it). We bet we’ll get good media coverage for this as well.
In addition to all of the above, your name will be included in the report that sums up the redesign process and results. This report will include tools and tips for others to replicate the work elsewhere. We’ll send the report to the school of your choice, with your name included in the cover letter. A report will be mailed to you as well.
In addition to all of the above, Inquiring Minds will conduct a 2 hour workshop in the 4th or 5th grade class of your choice to start the ball rolling on developing a new ecosystem classroom. (travel not included if its out of the greater NYC area). May be scheduled as early as January 2015
In addition to all of the above, we will conduct a 3 day workshop (including a full day charrette) with the K-12 classroom of your choice to rethink their classroom as a healthy ecosystem. This includes a detailed written evaluation with budget and timeline for completion. Best to do this at the end of a semester or during a break.
May be scheduled as early as May, 2015 (travel not included if outside the NYC area)