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Achieving Successful Collaborative Learning Spaces in Today’s Schools, Part 2

June 11th, 2015 by

Students are involved in more group learning today than ever before. In part, it’s due to the pedagogical emphasis on collaboration as an essential skill that students need to succeed in school, work, and life in the 21st century. Research-driven teaching practices like project-based learning and group collaboration call for new forms of spaces that can accommodate several clusters of students at one time.

From the architect’s perspective, these changes open the door to using multiple types of spaces as learning environments. While the more traditional repetitive rows of seats in a classroom may become smaller in a school’s formal program list, new spaces are needed to extend and supplement learning beyond the standard four walls — and to enable groups of students to congregate together to work on a presentation, task, assignment, or project.

In this second blog post about collaborative learning spaces, I’ll share some of the core elements involved in creating these spaces, the learning goals they strive to accomplish, and the advantages they can bring to 21st-century students. I’ll also explore what’s fueling the trend — and leading to these exciting, less formal learning environments.

Designed with flexibility in mind
Ideally, functional collaboration spaces include areas for these types of learning:

Collaboration spaces also need to:

SEED School of MD

Core elements
Today, the majority of these spaces need to link directly to the dedicated classroom. Smaller extension rooms interconnecting two classrooms can be shared and utilized when necessary by multiple teachers and students. This creates a semi-private space for group discussions, project activities, and even tutoring sessions with assistant teachers — all while larger classes can remain present in adjoining classrooms.

Visual connection between these spaces is a critical requirement that encourages interaction among peers and teachers; provides a sense of working in a hub-like (not closed-off) environment; and allows students to be properly monitored and observed. When needed, a larger, shared space between two classrooms can be created with moveable walls, creating a highly flexible space that can fluctuate with different groups or needs.

Larger, open collaboration spaces take many forms. Often, they work well in any number of locations around the school. For instance, an open, connected space in front of the classroom might border and even interweave with the circulation corridor, serving as nodes for activities like gathering, research, reading, and collaboration. Likewise, an end of hall configuration can become an active node in which several classrooms come together as a shared space due to a visual and physical connection.

Also, small niches can be built into a classroom, or a corridor can become a plug-in station location for a group of students to meet and work together. And common areas such as lobbies, courtyards, lounges, and atriums can function as both shared use circulation and collaborative learning gathering locations.

Essentially, every area in and around a school can serve as a learning space. As architects and designers, our goal is to utilize the supplemental spaces as effectively as possible — with collaborative, integrated learning top of mind.

Diagram 1

Additional features
While no two collaborative learning spaces will look the same, effective spaces often include certain key features:

Wherever the collaborative space is located, it needs to provide students with access to their peers in a non-rigorous setup that looks and feels different from “academic” spaces. The ultimate goal is to create a more informal learning zone for teachers and students to come together and share ideas, knowledge, and skills — and where teachers can observe, and even take part in, interaction among students in non-traditional settings.

Dallas F Nicholas Library

Departing from the past
We see these spaces now more than ever not only in high schools, where collaborative learning is preparing upperclassmen for the college environment (and later for the workforce), but also in elementary and middle schools. For instance, collaborative play areas are growing more commonplace in every grade of the elementary years. And in middle school, project-based learning is becoming a primary delivery system for learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

In the past, group activities like these occurred naturally in unexpected places — the cafeteria, the library, and even the gymnasium. While these spaces still count as collaboration spaces, several factors make them less than ideal, including the lack of technology and equipment housed there; the ambient characteristics of these spaces (which can range from too loud to too quiet); and the proximity to the teacher’s workspace and materials that promote the classroom curriculum.

SEED School of MD 2

Fine-tuning the approach
With further evaluation of the use and results of the functionality of collaboration spaces in schools today, additional questions arise that architects and educators need to address:

When we look at the traditional desks-in-row classrooms, the predictability and immobility seem to hinder students from reaching their potential — and growing, learning, and preparing for the future in a space that truly suits the tasks at hand.

As collaborative learning becomes an essential part of our education system, the need for spaces to accommodate this teaching methodology will keep rising. Planning, allocating resources for, and integrating dedicated, flexible spaces will enable collaboration spaces to be properly fit out and to function in a way that best serves the students and teachers using them.

Schools can continue to rely on the old standby — the “bonus room” that many of us grew up with — but the reality is that current and future students need a far greater mix of collaborative learning spaces to prepare for the road ahead.

If you’d like to learn more about our approach to school design, read our case study, “The SEED Foundation: Public Boarding Schools Pave the Way for Optimal Learning.”