Designing the Elementary Classroom Experience
As the science of education evolves, there is movement towards a more fluid definition of the optimal elementary school learning environment. It is well-understood—especially at the elementary level—that education is not always best accomplished in a classroom “box” with four walls, children seated quietly and still, in rows and facing forward, with a teacher imparting wisdom at the front of the room. In the old days, this static formula was sometimes so rigidly implemented that the classroom’s windows were on the left side of the room when facing the chalkboard, so that daylight would more effectively reach a sheet of paper on the students’ desks. And students were required to write with their right hands, even if they were naturally left-handed which is how my left-handed father came to be ambidextrous.
That old formula stifled, rather than supported, learning for many children. Building on the work of former teacher and educational leader Eric Jensen, current research into the neuroscience of education tells us that children learn best when:
- learning is novel, challenging, meaningful, and open-ended;
- activities are multi-sensory;
- gross and fine motor movement is reinforced;
- they have sufficient time for tasks, including time for reflection;
- environmental stress levels are appropriate; and
- they have social connection and support.
As school designers, we ask ourselves: So what kind of learning environment best helps teachers create these conditions for young learners? To some extent, the answer depends on the pedagogical approach of a given school or school system. There is a growing tendency toward increased collaboration among teachers, and interdisciplinary, project-based learning, but this is not seen evenly everywhere. Balancing current practice and lessons from neuroscience to ensure that new schools are future-ready requires starting from where your school is operating now.
DLR Group has designed elementary schools that support traditional grade-level clusters that also accommodate a planned transition to multi-age, topic-based clusters of students. At Lake Stickney Elementary School in Lynnwood, Washington, the school is designed around six learning suites. Each suite houses five classrooms, a small group room, and project space that can be assigned by grade or by theme.
Managing change often requires meaningful and frank discussions with school leadership about how to balance current needs and future expectations. Excellent teachers have mastered the management of the relatively isolated, self-contained classroom as a vibrant learning environment that serves diverse learners while meeting many of the conditions outlined above. For them, a large, well-appointed classroom may be the best fit. But where teachers have been trained—by life and/or by their collegiate education—to work more collaboratively, or where a school system is committed to looking ahead, then breaking down barriers between teachers, using movable partitions, designing shared collaborative areas, and re-imagining the learning environment can result in new learning that breaks out of the box in some important and significant ways.
Future-ready schools take into account what we know about the direction of education, but it also acknowledges that we don’t know everything. We know that technology plays an increasingly important role in education, but we also know that schools as physical places for learning are still essential. Online learning works best as a hybrid combined with collaborative activities that includes teachers, guides, and groups of students. Today’s future-ready schools must be flexible within the school day and school year, but also adaptable over the years ahead. Our commitment is not to trends or change for its own sake, but to build schools that will help young students cherish learning and to reach their fullest potential.