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Achieving Successful Collaborative Learning Spaces in Today’s Schools

May 28th, 2015 by

As an architect, when I think of the inside of schools built today, what do I see? A shift from heavy, enclosed spaces is evident. Boxed-in classrooms are breaking away to a new kind of learning space that extends and connects directly with auxiliary spaces. Essentially, the space that once was the classroom has exploded.

Many elements of present-day building design practices are becoming standard practice in today’s learning institutions — natural light, open air, spacious corridors, green building practices, outdoor classrooms, increased visibility, and technology integration. Thankfully, these methods are increasingly accounted for in the budgets of new and renovated school projects. More work is needed, however, to raise the spaces outside of the traditional classroom to this same level. These spaces are integral to learning, yet they’re often underutilized or unaccounted for in design and construction budgets.

How can these spaces enhance learning for students? Why are they vital to educating kids in the 21st century? In large part, it’s because they foster collaborative learning.


What is a collaborative learning space?
We’ve all heard the buzzwords: extended learning area, break-out space, learning lounge, computer-supported collaborative learning environment, learning studio, active learning classroom —  I could name countless others. What do these words mean?

By definition, a collaborative learning space enables students to work together in groups to solve problems, discuss ideas, and try out various approaches. These spaces differ from the standard lecture theater, seminar room, computer room, or even a classroom in the traditional sense. In a lecture hall, for instance, the instructor typically stands up front at a podium, speaking to students seated in long ascending lines of straight rows. A collaborative learning space, on the other hand, might consist of a breakout room with flexible furniture that students can move and situate as needed, depending on the task at hand.

Why is collaborative learning important?
With today’s evolving mixed-method approaches to teaching and learning, an architectural challenge arises: the ways in which teachers present information to students has expanded, and the need to accommodate all types of learners is crucial — meaning more than one kind of space is needed to compose the makeup of the traditional classroom.Diagram2

On top of that, the work world has changed, and the ability to collaborate has emerged as a critical skill in a 21st-century education (and in 21st-century careers). Consider, for instance, that the National Education Association (NEA) ranks collaboration among the top four skills students need to succeed in and beyond school. Here’s how the NAE explains it in Preparing 21st-Century Students for a Global Society: An Educator’s Guide to the “Four C’s”:

Collaboration is essential in our classrooms because it is inherent in the nature of how work is accomplished in our civic and workforce lives. Fifty years ago, much work was accomplished by individuals working along, but not today. Much of all significant work is accomplished in teams, and in many cases, global teams.

Roger Carter Rec Center

So the challenge we face is this:

How people educate (Teachers) + the means in which learning evolves (Students) + creating an environment to accommodate several mixtures of both in a forward-thinking manner (Architecture) =

Collaborative Learning Spaces.

As school design shifts to accommodate the needs of today’s students and teachers, it’s important for architects, schools, and developers alike to stay on top of and understand the changes. Advances in education research are paving the way for a new kind of teaching and learning — and consequently, a new kind of school architecture.

I’ve only scratched the surface of collaborative learning spaces in this first post. In my next post, I’ll delve into what these spaces can look like and walk you through some of the best practices. Meanwhile, read a story by my colleague Michael Blake, “Trends in 21st-Century School Design.”