Opinion

How high schools get left back

Students, teachers need better class space and support

High schools are changing to meet the expectations of our innovation economy. Our traditional instructional approach of content mastery is making way for a deeper learning experience.

To prepare high school graduates for their next step, teachers are expanding their roles from subject matter experts to learning facilitators, integrating technology to better meet the needs of every student.

The goal of innovating the way we teach our students is a complex undertaking — and a valiant one — for many schools, given the fact that it is taking place in yesterday’s classrooms.

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Take 1,000 square feet of bland, design deadened space filled with row upon row of front-facing, rigid, single desks with limited views to the outdoors.

It sounds more like a factory than a place of inspiration and learning.

Fortunately, conversations are beginning to take place that consider the ways in which physical spaces can support deeper learning strategies.

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There is currently $40 billion in new school construction and upgrades to existing buildings under way in the United States, according to the 20th Annual School Construction Report.

This building activity has the potential to significantly impact students’ daily experience of high school.

One example of a high school intentionally designed to support an environment of deeper learning is e3 Civic High.

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Located on the sixth and seventh floors of the ultramodern San Diego Central Library, e3 leverages both its unique co-location and the downtown community to engage, educate, and empower its students.

The urban experience is seen as both an asset and a context for learning.

Project-based learning provides the frame for weaving academic core subjects with five experiential strands: civic and service leadership; community internships and partnerships; cultural and social literacy; web-based and new media technology; and health and community wellness.

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As a Next Generation Learning Challenge “breakthrough model,” the school is designed to accelerate student achievement through a personalized, digitally blended approach where each student is provided with a laptop for both school and home use.

The spaces at e3 clearly communicate to students, staff, parents and community members the collaborative and inquiry-based nature of learning.

The structure of the school — its walls, furniture, hallways, staircases, surfaces, technologies, and visual displays — all support the core educational principles of the school.

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Even the windows with views to the downtown are used as a prompt to extend the concept of classroom into community.

Central design features provide e3 students with an environment that looks and functions differently than the traditional high school.

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The classrooms are known as studios. These studios feature glass walls, walls covered in whiteboard space, moveable tables and soft seating, and presentation technology that connects to each student’s laptop.

This is just one example of a well-designed high school that aligns its program and space.

Across the country, a number of school districts are partnering with architects to create similar award-winning projects serving as best practice models.

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Innovation and design aside — there is concern over how we take these individual, innovative school designs to scale.

Aside from the issue of cost, a fundamental issue with expansion and replication is that teachers may not be fully prepared for the shift in the classroom roles and activities that an active learning space affords.

Like digital technology, physical spaces can be an essential tool if and when teachers have the expertise to effectively integrate these tools with the learning strategy.

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What processes are in place to ensure that high schools are ready for innovative space design?

Educational commissioning is one architectural practice that begins to address this issue by informing stakeholders of the design intent of the newly constructed building.

But the impact of educational commissioning is limited.

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It is rarely coupled with the district’s ongoing professional learning process to build the collective capacity of teachers — an essential element in the successful implementation of deeper learning strategies in the classroom.

With that said, a more robust version of educational commissioning may be an untapped opportunity to use the space design process, itself, to strengthen instructional practice.

A 2014 research study affirmed the value of providing professional learning opportunities to teach staff to explore the use of the space within the context of the school’s learning strategy.

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By taking this to the next level, all phases of the space design process from planning to construction to occupancy could serve as focal points for district-led professional development sessions that support teachers’ ability to take up the new role of designer, facilitator, and co-constructor of the learning.

There is an emerging consensus that elements like glass walls, mobile partitions, whiteboards, tables on wheels, and new use of space all foster the development of 21st century learning skills.

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What has been lacking is a process that simultaneously supports the educators within the classroom through professional development.

Linking space design and instructional supports will help ensure high schools are ready for innovation to better serve today’s students for years to come.

Dr. Julie Zoellin Cramer is deputy director for the Institute for Entrepreneurship in Education at the University of San Diego and the lead researcher for the Institute’s Learning Space Design Project

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Julie Zoellin Cramer

Dr. Julie Zoellin Cramer is deputy director for the Institute for Entrepreneurship in Education at the University of San Diego and the lead researcher for… See Archive

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