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Flexible learning environments giving students more ownership, choice in their education
Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar, College Community and Iowa City school districts creating state-of-the-art schools infused with technology and physical environments that inspire learning
Even before the pandemic, schools districts were looking at ways to reexamine their traditional “desk in row” classrooms that kept students from collaborating or picking their own way to learn best.
But the pandemic that drove hundreds of students to learn remotely from March 2020 to June 2021 is only underscoring those efforts as districts learn more about what leads to students success: Flexible furniture, science, technology, engineering and math labs, a project-based learning and outdoor learning spaces are meeting the needs of educators and students in school districts across Eastern Iowa.
"Any classroom that has re-examined their ‘desk in rows’ approach to a classroom environment is moving forward with embracing the mentality behind the flexible learning space design," said Lynn Kleinmeyer, Grant Wood Area Education Agency digital learning consultant.
The pandemic gave school districts even more of a chance to reflect on how their learning spaces are supporting the needs of students, Kleinmeyer said, and the “huge impact” a physical environments can have on education.
During the pandemic when students were learning from home, they were able to make more choices about their learning environment than when they were in a traditional classroom, Kleinmeyer said.
“They got to experiment with and discover which environments worked best for them — laying on the floor, sitting on a couch, gathered around a table,” Kleinmeyer said.
“Having adaptive spaces that ebb and flow with the needs of our learners can replicate this same experience.”
Hundreds of students who attended school remotely during the pandemic, from March 2020 to June 2021, returned in-person this fall to find educational environments that better fit their learning needs.
"That’s the hallmark of a lot of these redesigned learning spaces,“ Kleinmeyer said. ”They are designed to be able to focus on the needs of the individual with quiet, comfortable spaces to work independently.“
Cedar Rapids and Linn-Mar school districts opened new schools in the past two years with modern learning spaces bringing together flexible furniture, mobile devices, robust Wi-Fi and large flat screens to optimize learning.
West Willow Elementary School was the first new school to welcome students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District in 20 years. Students attended the first day of school on Aug. 23, even though construction hadn’t quite been completed because of delays associated with the pandemic.
Earlier this month, the district finally held a ribbon cutting and open house for the building, and students themselves lead community members on a tour of their school.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District has plans to build 10 new elementary schools and renovate three over the next 15 to 20 years, and is beginning planning its facilities master plan for secondary schools.
A new fifth- and sixth-grade school in the College Community School District with two gyms, and art, music and media centers also is under construction.
Accredited learning environment planner with OPN Architects Vicki Hyland agrees the pandemic forced schools to prepare customized learning environments. Learning is no longer ”sitting in rows in a classroom and memorizing state capitals.“
Hyland is one of only three accredited learning environment planners in Iowa and worked on many of the school building projects for Eastern Iowa school districts.
“We know toddlers don’t grab a book and sit at a desk,” Hyland said. “They lie on a sofa, on the floor, on a pillow.
“It’s creating those atmospheres where their brain engages and they’re not thinking about how rigid the desk is.”
Personalized learning in a ‘neighborhood’
In each of these new schools, students are assigned to a neighborhood or a “pod,” a group of classrooms with a common area for students to gather or do group work to make a large school feel more personalized.
This can make a large, 1,200-student school feel less overwhelming, Kleinmeyer said.
“You’re not just a number because you are in a tight-knit learning community,” she said.
These new schools also offer collaborative classrooms for small group work. Many of these spaces, however, were unable to be used for their intended purpose at the height of the pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.
Schools still were trying to space students six feet apart to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, said Eric Townsley, information technology director for College Community schools.
This year, these spaces are getting used a lot as schools encourage collaboration as a part of students’ social-emotional learning, said Adam Kurth, Iowa City schools’ information technology director.
With so many students learning virtually last year, those peer-to-peer interactions are critical, he said.
Taking away learning barriers
College Community and Iowa City schools also have added “voice lift” technology, a microphone and sound system in the classroom to amplify the teacher’s voice.
While this project — which also included adding interactive projectors and additional flat screens in classrooms — began three years ago in Iowa City schools, it has proved helpful during the pandemic, Kurth said.
Voice lift technology in particular may be especially important if a teacher is required or chooses to wear a mask — which may muffle their voice — to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“One of the really critical things is ensuring we are supporting collaboration between students, maybe in the form of physical space design,” Kurth said. “We need to make sure our technology is providing a safe environment for students and not creating barriers to learning.”
A backbone for remote learning
These newer buildings, infused with technology, also serve as a backbone for students to learn remotely.
Instead of paper-and-pencil assignments, students are logging in online to do their schoolwork. If a student is out sick or otherwise unable to attend school in-person, they might have the option of attending virtually without creating much extra work for the teacher.
Many school districts went one to one with technology at the start of the pandemic, providing a laptop or tablet for every student to take home. The Iowa City Community School District still has 600 students learning from home this year, reinforcing the importance of internet access for every child, Kurth said.
During the pandemic, Kurth also learned the importance of providing students continued access to curriculum. For example, if a student is interested in digital art, they should be able to get access to Adobe products through their school district, whether or not they’re enrolled in a class that uses that technology, he said.
“We want to facilitate lifelong, continuous learning. That means we can’t drop summers,” Kurth said.
Kurth added students now get to keep their devices during the summer and have access to software and learning platforms.
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