Hillbrook School, an independent, coeducational JK-8 day school in the heart of Silicon Valley, is leaping straight into the fray of mobile learning.

What do you put in your classroom to change behavior?

Posted on October 22, 2013 by Don Orth under General
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We are serious about space at Hillbrook.

Not the kind that has planets and stars, but the space in which students learn. Three years of the Hillbrook Idea Lab (iLab) has taught us a lot about the aspects of space that build confidence and engagement, and ultimately inspire students to learn. (See companion videos edited by Tim Springer here: https://www.hillbrook.org/ilab)

We’ve taken to heart the learning environment as a Third Teacher—light, space, color, decorations, furniture and available tools impact our experience, and ultimately our learning. The iLab has taught us that movement, choice, and the right tools can empower students to move, explore, learn and engage more deeply in their work. This year, we redesigned three more middle school classrooms to incorporate iLab components and concepts that we found had the greatest impact on the learning of students. The following is the short list:

  1. Whiteboard walls

  2. Rolling whiteboards

  3. Rolling, folding, whiteboard tables

  4. The concept of a room reset

  5. The concept of a classroom without a front

Search for “classroom” in Google images. Results confirm what you probably see in your mind when you think “classroom;” desks or tables lined up in rows, blackboard or whiteboard at the front of a room, and maybe students holding devices of some sort. And from there, it’s easy to imagine a teacher in front guiding and instructing a classroom of children, who dutifully hang on the his or her every word. It’s mostly what our own education looked like—elementary, middle, high school, college—and it hasn’t changed much in too many places around the world.

Simultaneously, it’s hard to ignore what we hear about and see in our local, highly innovative Silicon Valley culture. Telecommuting, open workspaces, giant whiteboards, design thinking, the necessity of collaboration, technology, etc. I’m not suggesting that we need to prepare our students for a start-up culture, but we are learning that the traditional classroom is not always ideal for building the competencies our children need and the world they live in now.

They need to learn how to problem solve and think critically. They need to know how to integrate technology seamlessly when it makes sense and augments their work. They need to learn how to collaborate in a synergistic way with their peers and not in the “I’ll do my part and you do yours then we’ll stick ‘em together” kind of assembly line model. The expectations we have for our children and the complexities of their world require rethinking education. And surprisingly, the learning space is a remarkable vehicle for getting there.

Over the past three years, we’ve collected information about how students and teachers use the Hillbrook iLab (formerly known as the computer lab). We compared engagement in traditional spaces and compared it to the iLab. We observed how students moved and made decisions about where and how they worked when given the freedom to choose. We asked teachers and students how they felt working in the iLab, what was possible in that space compared to other spaces. We asked teachers to do the same activities in their classroom and the iLab, and to compare the the experience in both spaces. We asked student about how they viewed the iLab as compared to other classrooms, and about the work they got done. The results are intriguing, and indicate that re-examining and potentially redesigning learning spaces is essential work for all schools. The following are a few highlights.

The iLab helped students learn about how they learned best and how, by manipulating their environment, they could get different kinds of work done. Because the iLab had a “room reset” at the end of each class, incoming students had to design their learning space when they came in. Which meant that they had to know what kind of work they were doing. Which means they were thinking about the work. Which means they were a stepping into owning the work before starting the work itself. We saw students more engaged, more creative, more energetic, and developing more ideas in the iLab space as compared to other traditional spaces.

The iLab had a certain feeling to it that teacher and student and even visitors could sense. Students wanted to be in the iLab and it was the favorite space of many.

Students were empowered in the iLab. The whiteboard walls and rolling boards, the permission to arrange the environment, and the freedom to move afforded more opportunities for student leadership, student-directed learning, and differentiation. Work in the iLab feels important and like real life, partially because students have more control over their choices. That said, teachers did not teach the same way in the iLab, and upon reflection, talked about a shift towards being a partner or consultant rather than leader or supervisor.

Because Hillbrook took a deep dive into asking and researching agile learning spaces in practice, many schools use our story to inform their own decisions about their classrooms. There is a significant movement to redesign learning spaces and Hillbrook, it’s teachers and students, are helping shape the future spaces for students in many other schools.

Currently, we’re working with the National Teacher’s Academy, an elementary school in Chicago, helping them explore their own agile classroom space, and opening a dialog between our students. We’re also working with the Palo Alto Union school district to investigate how agile learning spaces can be applied to adult learning. We’ve also started to build partnerships with San Jose State College of Ed, Stanford University, and other schools and universities to broaden our inquiry. In the fall of 2014, we hope to hold a Learning Spaces summit that gathers leadership around the world to discuss the future of the classroom.

The impact of the learning environment cannot be underestimated. Our intense inquiry to the ways in which agile learning spaces impact learning are not only benefitting our own students but are influencing the world.

At Hillbrook this year, we have extended the iLab classroom format to middle school English, history and math classrooms. Teachers and students continue to explore how these agile classrooms help students engage and learn more deeply. We are fortunate to have a community of teachers and learning who ask questions, dive deep, and lead the way to shaping the future of education for Hillbrook and beyond.

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