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August 23, 2012

Schools can stretch facilities budgets by embracing technology

  • Online learning and project-based work ease space needs by letting students log in away from school or by making better use of existing classrooms.
    NAC Architecture


    Twenty-first-century learning recognizes that the three “Rs” — reading, writing and arithmetic — are no longer sufficient to prepare students for the world.

    While basic skills are essential, there is an increasing understanding that students need to develop additional abilities to thrive. A new alliterative slogan describes the four “Cs” — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity — as the new skills we must teach in our schools.

    While the basic skills were efficiently taught in traditional classrooms using lecture, repetition and discipline, the four Cs require different types of spaces.

    Another important aspect of 21st-century learning is the widely available and robust technology that is giving students choices in their learning that they never had before. Technology is enabling students to control the pace and place of their learning, and along with the 4 Cs, has profound implications for school design.

    The four Cs

    Schools that are teaching the four Cs tend to look different from conventional schools. They still have some classrooms for lecture, but also have spaces designed for the four Cs.

    Photo by Greg Stack [enlarge]
    A teacher guides students working in small groups at a school outside Sydney, Australia.

    Twenty-first-century schools based on the four Cs use projects to help teach critical thinking. Students apply what they have learned in new situations.

    Projects allow them to use their learning in several subjects in new and unique ways. Projects require places for students to get messy, have materials handy and to work in groups.

    Twenty-first-century schools are also teaching students to communicate. This goes beyond writing to teaching students how to use videos, multimedia, animation and storytelling, and present in front of live audiences. Mastering multiple forms of communication requires the creation of spaces students can use to produce and present the product of their learning.

    Emulating the world of work, students are collaborating more than ever. Collaboration requires spaces for groups of various sizes to get together to talk, compare notes, work at computers and solve problems cooperatively.

    Encouraging students to explore creativity allows them to make their schoolwork relevant by tying it to their own interests. Creativity requires flexible spaces that allow students to explore, whether this means building robots, expressing themselves through performance or other arts or by creating on computers.

    The four Cs are taught through the guidance of skilled teachers who collaborate with each other and need places for this collaboration.

    Students in 21st-century schools are not constrained by time but rather by mastery of a topic. Teaching occurs across the curriculum, blurring boundaries between disciplines, encouraging students to solve problems requiring broad and deep knowledge just as in the real world.

    Cross-disciplinary spaces must be flexible but specific. Science labs combined with shop spaces or art rooms combined with performance spaces are the kinds of new combinations that are possible.

    Customized learning

    Technology now enables the customization of education. In traditional schools students learn at the same pace and move onto the next topic whether or not they have mastered the current topic. Technology, for the first time ever, is changing this.

    Using online resources students can move at their own pace, choose the learning modalities that work best for them, and learn in the physical situation that is most convenient for them. Students can learn anywhere, and increasing numbers are using this opportunity to learn away from school. Learning partially online and partially in school has been termed “blended learning” and combines the customization of online learning with the human connection and teacher guidance of a bricks-and-mortar school.

    Consequences for schools

    The facility consequences of the four Cs and new technology can be significant. When lecture is no longer the predominant mode of delivery the need for the majority of school spaces to be classrooms connected by corridors is lessened.

    More flexible spaces that allow group work, project work, mentoring by experts, performance spaces and collaboration spaces better serve the needs of 21st-century learning. Corridors comprise 15 to 20 percent of a traditional school. If even part of this space can be captured for learning then schools should be able to accommodate more students in the same space, or alternatively, schools can be smaller.

    In traditional schools classrooms are typically used for teaching five out of six periods per day. They are not used for teaching 17 percent of the time, and are often unused longer than this due to scheduling inefficiencies.

    Twenty-first-century learning spaces are less classroom-based and schedules are less period-based. Students are working on projects across the curriculum and for longer periods of time, giving the school the potential to be more fully utilized and thus increase its capacity.

    More efficient use of technology can also have big facility implications, particularly the phenomenon of blended learning. Blended learning is a spectrum that ranges from students working online in school to working online at home.

    Blended models are developing in which students come to school less than three days a week for classes, requiring labs or other specialized spaces, and are spending the rest of their learning time elsewhere. If students only need to attend a bricks-and-mortar location two-and-a-half days a week, a school building has the potential to double its capacity through the use of blended learning.

    At Hoosier Academies Charter School in Indiana for instance, students spend two days per week in class and the rest of the time at home or other locations working online. Their teachers are available online and at school, and the schedule doubles the capacity of the bricks-and-mortar location.

    School districts around the country are increasingly turning to 21st-century practices to better prepare students for their futures, and to accommodate the new realities of school funding. As budget pressures continue to drive efficiency, 21st-century learning has the potential to transform school environments.

    Greg Stack is a principal and K-12 thought leader for NAC Architecture. For more on this subject and other school design issues visit his blog: schooldesignmatters.blogspot.com.

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