Schools are rethinking what learning looks like

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LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Picture a school.

Are you envisioning sterile, locker-filled hallways and classrooms with desks arranged neatly in rows?

That's a classic 20th-century school, and its design may prevent the current generation from getting a modern education, some experts say.

The average school in the United States is between 30 and 50 years old, according to Prakash Nair, whose Minneapolis-based architectural firm, Fielding Nair International, specializes in designing innovative schools.

Those decades-old buildings were created when learning meant listening to a teacher lecture until the bell rang.

Not so today.

A 21st-century education, school leaders say, should be "student-centered," meaning teachers bring questions and problems to class, and students are given autonomy to find answers and solutions.

In a school like that, "Students seem to want to be there," Nair said. "At the end of the day, students are not looking to go home. There's not a rush to the door."

The student-centered model leads to learning through projects, the arts, movement and students helping each other.

But that kind of learning doesn't happen in tidy rows.

"A typical classroom is not consciously designed to do more than two of those things," said Nair. "Teaching methods are limited to what space allows them to do."

In Lancaster County, some schools are overcoming that challenge by rethinking — and remaking — learning spaces.

Upgraded furniture

No one who's manuevered themselves into a chair-and-desk contraption found in most high school classrooms could call them comfortable. And forget about paying attention to the same voice for 45 to 90 minutes in that position.

At McCaskey High School, Kelly Peters' classroom includes those traditional desks, but it also has a love seat, cushy arm chairs and a collection of collapsible chairs, which she dubs "soccer mom chairs."

Peters' classes use a reading program that recommends the "comfort zones" set-up. "The whole classroom ecology is so critical," the teacher said.

"I want them to enjoy reading. You know, lie on the sofa and read the book. I don't want it to be a stuffy 'Oh, I have to read a chapter.' "

On a recent rainy morning, freshman Estelin Soriano staked out a spot on a mustard-colored cozy chair, where he cracked open "Found" by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

"(The chair) makes me feel comfortable to read. You feel like you're at your own house," he said.

Nooks in common areas

Some schools call them third spaces. Others call them alcoves or bump-out spaces. Whatever the label, several local schools have added new areas for learning beyond classroom boundaries.

When Garden Spot Middle School was renovated three years ago, nooks with different types of seating were incorporated into the hallway design. The spaces are used for group collaboration on projects or for independent work away from other activities.

At Lancaster Country Day School, a third space near one entrance offers an outdoor view and features tall café tables and stools. Junior Lila Gibson said she uses the space during weekly math tutoring or to do homework.

Another alcove in the school looks like a small living room, with two cushioned chairs, a matching love seat, a coffee table, a bench and a maroon rug stretched across the floor.

Perched around the coffee table, Gibson and two classmates said it's nice to feel ownership over their learning spaces.

"We're treated like adults, and we're not looked down upon," said Gibson.

Re-imagined classrooms

The computer lab at Pequea Valley High School became obsolete when the school began issuing laptops to every student. So the room got a makeover.

Angular equipment and furniture was replaced by an open circle of Adirondack chairs, café-style tables, and interactive TV screens mounted on the walls. Teachers use the room for discussions or student presentations.

"We're trying to create an atmosphere that looks way different from school — higher-level thinking, creativity, maximizing the laptops and resources we have," said Principal Arlen Mummau.

The school has even knocked down walls to create alternative learning environments. Last year, a former woodshop and another classroom were converted into a suite with large work tables, desks on wheels and open space. In that room, science, math and tech teachers guide students in hands-on projects.

Mummau plans to keep the transformations rolling.

"We talk about 21st-century learning, but I go into a lot of schools, and ... the kids are still in rows, and the teacher's desk is still in the front. Have we really changed? Have we really moved that much in 100 years?"




Information from: LNP,

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