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July 22, 2010

Student-centered schools put learning first

  • As teaching becomes more personalized, school spaces will need to be more flexible.
    NAC Architecture


    If you think back to the time you were in school, high school or earlier, you probably remember classes where you did well and were engaged, those that bored you, and still others that you found too challenging.

    Chances are, the ones you excelled in responded well to your needs as a learner while those that bored you or confused you did not. This is a common situation and highlights the problem faced by teachers who teach students with many different learning needs.

    Solving this problem is the notion behind student-centered learning, where the individual needs of student are front and center. This is an idea that has been around for a while, but is finding currency again in the search for ways to improve educational outcomes and the need for students to develop the “21st-century skills” they will need in their life after school. In addition to literacy, science and math skills, and knowledge of government and economics, 21st-century skills include critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

    Student-centered learning is tailored to learning styles, and students are encouraged to move at a pace that ensures they understand concepts before moving on. This goes a long way to improving student engagement.

    Photo by Christopher Gerber/High Tech High [enlarge]
    High Tech High in San Diego has a variety of spaces and furniture, giving students and work groups more flexibility for study and collaboration.

    If the pace is too slow, students can move faster and move on to more challenging material. Those who do not understand the concepts can take more time or find alternative approaches to the material that might better respond to their learning needs.

    For both teachers and students, it represents a change. Rather than delivering information to passive recipients, teachers are more engaged in guiding students to discover meaning in the information they’re considering.

    Information is also explored in new ways through projects, student-to-student instruction, team collaboration and presentations that use a variety of media to demonstrate knowledge. Technology is also being used increasingly since it allows the individualization of instruction at low cost.

    As we consider this trend, logical questions are: What does this transformation mean for the physical environments of schools, and how would a student-centered environment look?

    Industrial education

    To answer these questions, let’s turn first to the characteristics of the environments that are not student-centered.

    When you remember the school environment from your own experience, it probably had many of the following characteristics: classes taught in nearly identical rooms arranged along a central corridor; a strict time limit for the start and end of class; a teacher lecturing a class with students in rows facing one direction; a clear front and back of the room, with white boards or chalkboards on some of the walls and perhaps a few computers in the room located together in the back.

    This environment, which is typical even in many new schools, is the result of the “industrial” model of education, which had as its goal to process a lot of students at minimum cost, providing them with basic skills.

    It works well enough for students who respond to this sort of learning activity, but tends to leave students behind who don’t respond to this approach, and to bore students who don’t see the relevance of what they are learning or aren’t receptive to how it is being taught.

    It is not student-centered because it ignores the individual needs of students. A certain amount of material needs to be covered, and whether or not the student has mastered it, it is necessary to move on to the next unit of material.

    Many teachers try to personalize their teaching in this situation, but with limited time and support for customization, dedicated teachers are still limited by a system that was never designed for personalization.

    A student-centered model

    Student-centered learning environments, by contrast, will need to be very different. The examples that exist have some things in common: students tend to have a home base or work station to call their own; classrooms, while they still exist, are more limited and specialized, with more learning happening out of the classroom; spaces with a variety of furniture — soft seating, sofas and tables — are available for students who may find them more comfortable than the traditional desk arrangement; more spaces exist for working in groups; teachers are grouped together so they can collaborate more easily; areas for presentation are widely available; flexible spaces that accommodate a wide range of project activities both for individuals and groups are scattered throughout; students are encouraged to exercise creativity in both the development and rearrangement of spaces; technology — computers, projectors, smart boards and so on — are widely available with easy wireless connectivity.

    A school environment that displays many of these characteristics is High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego. Instead of classrooms, High Tech High has studios, seminar rooms, collaboration areas, spaces for project-based learning, and a variety of furniture available for student rearrangement and use.

    The school is very flexible in terms of the kinds of projects and groupings it can accommodate. This physical arrangement supports the school’s cross-curricular approach by allowing students to develop knowledge in many subject areas through project-based learning.

    A project might combine the development of math, science and social studies skills, for instance, by working on a project that requires exploration into all of these subjects to successfully complete the project. High Tech High is a student-centered learning environment.

    Although student-centered learning has gained currency in discussions of educational reform, it is not common to see this approach wholly adopted in schools. The reasons for this go beyond the scope of this article, but as this trend gains momentum, it would be wise for facility planners and designers to plan for its consequences.

    Those consequences are the need for spaces that are different from those we see today, spaces that allow more collaboration, encourage critical thinking and foster communication between students, faculty and the greater community. In short, student-centered learning environments will need to be more flexible and adaptable to the individualization and personalization trends of the future.

    Greg Stack is the K-12 thought leader for NAC Architecture.

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