Space matters in the 21st century

08/21/2013  |  By ALLISON MARIE GOEDDE, Ed.D.
School Environments

In what we know as an academic setting, such as a classroom, typically the space is set up with desks, whiteboards, and shelves for books and supplies. In this space students are arranged in groups of about 25, by grade level, and synchronously listen to teacher-led lessons driven by curriculum they need for success in life. Also in this space, often times students worked quietly at their desks while teachers monitor and browse the rows to make sure they are studying. Transitioning from that classical academic setting to a 21st century learning space is not an easy task.

Space in the School Environment 

What I used to do to prepare for teaching in the classic academic setting was construct a series of presentations using power point to segment instruction into units. Prompting students while they used a worksheet at their desk. I soon learned to engage students in the presentation by adding hyperlinks to external websites to provide more information in case someone would ask a question that I couldn’t answer. Call me insecure in not having enough on my slides to cover the content but isn’t there always going to be more to know? I would find myself standing in front of students clicking around mountains of information while they stared-off with glazed eyes until I paused to answer questions that were never asked. Despite using technology, the lowest order of thinking in this classical academic setting was being facilitated, awareness and memorization of facts. I began to think to myself more critically about how technology might be used to modernize the space in order to engage students in higher-order thinking practices to cover the curriculum. It wasn’t as much about having students in that space as it was about what I was doing with the students in that space. And it wasn’t as much about having all the latest technology in that space as it was about using the right tools to engage and measure student learning the essential skills for success.

Collaborative Space in the School Environment

If all the data and information we ever need for teaching core curriculum is now available on the Internet, then why do kids still need to physically go to school? Is it because they need to have structured learning designed for them? I say yes! Educators’ roles have not dramatically changed, the tools and space for learning have changed.

Educators are still essential in the collaborative school environment. The physical space of the collaborative learning environment contains desks, whiteboards, computers, mobile devices, shelves for materials, screens for large displays, in essence the same tools as the classical academic setting. However, synchronicity, or all students following instruction at the same time, is no longer necessary. When resources are coordinated by the educator and made accessible through technology tools, the collaborative space is active. Students are engaged in learning by synthesizing, analyzing, evaluating and sharing creative ideas with each other, or using higher-order thinking skills to construct new ideas. This is part of the learning experience of bringing students together in school. Collaboration, discussion, student-centered learning are all parts of experiences related to project-based learning and problem-solving. The tools available in the physical space can be used to facilitate access to teacher materials, access to computing devices, and even access to experts outside of the classroom.

The flipped classroom concept is only part of an approach to facilitate the active collaborative learning environment. In the flipped classroom, students have prepared for collaboration by engaging in a virtual space that is constructed by their teacher prior to coming to school. Instead of sitting and listening at school all day and completing projects at home, students prepare for school by accessing instructional materials such as teacher videos, podcasts, and readings at home in preparation for constructing projects and collaborating with classmates at school.

Integrating technology in this collaborative space empowers students to use what they learned from teacher-led instruction, to apply knowledge in creative and authentic ways. The role of the educator in the classroom is that of facilitating higher order thinking skills as students are learning to use them. The technology tools can be used by the teacher to collect products in digital format for instant formative assessment, or later analysis for future direction of learning.

It really is much easier to use the same lessons from semester to semester and have students in the classic classroom setting where I can just tell them what I know about that particular unit, rather than collecting my thoughts in a digital medium for accessibility by students out of my classroom. I really don’t like watching myself on video, nor listening to myself talk from a recording.  But what I do like is planning my instructional materials ahead, making mistakes and correcting them before I’m in front of the crowd. I also like having access to vast resources that I’ve organized for students to use outside of class. And finally, I especially like being able to surmise from students when they are prepared for collaboration, and when they are not.  I like asking students to be credible in their thinking by asking them, “how do you know that?” Not only is my classroom flipped but the tables are turned!

Critical School Space

Not every classroom and every teacher will have all the technology that is available for learning.  And actually, there isn’t one tool, nor one application that can automate the learning process. We have iPads in classrooms for engaging students and for acquiring information. We still need laptops and computer labs for computing and automating ideas. We should still be using primary resources in libraries and not depend solely on digital information as the basis for all our knowledge. Much in the same way we cannot depend on the Wii for providing tools for physical activity, we still need the gymnasium to physically throw, catch, run at our full physical potential.

The learning environment that is conducive to access to various mediums is optimal for success. Arrange the desks in groups, have chairs on wheels, have multiple flat screens in position viewable from different angles.  Have iPads available for automation and consuming. Also arrange time in computer labs or on laptops for computing and producing. Be ready to manage multiple activities happening simultaneously, that all contribute to reaching a collaborative end result.  We could use the metaphor of a potluck banquet, every one brings one dish, not everyone brings a whole meal. 

Anytime, Anywhere Space

In modern learning spaces, students spend time collaborating and constructing solutions to complex problems driven by cross- curricular topics. Modern tools such as laptops, iPads, digital cameras, Web 2.0 applications, and whiteboards make up active learning spaces that are dependent on skilled educators as facilitators of learning. The future of learning depends on teaching students how to be inquisitive thinkers who not only consume information but can also produce solutions based on their knowledge. It is essential today to have learning experiences that will prepare students to be independent learners, creative thinkers, and active members of society.

More and more emphasis is being placed on teachers to diversify instruction to meet the needs of every student. It makes sense to arrange the educational workspace to facilitate this type of activity. Desks in rows, or computers in desktop cubicles may not inspire innovation in the same manner as open collaborative counters and chairs on wheels might. I can envision an active learning classroom of the future that is equipped with interactive web-enabled plexi-glass tabletops for students to navigate to core curriculum sites for facts to support their problem-solving tasks. As they discover new information it is compiled in a database that is projecting on one of 5 monitors in the room.  The physical space is alive and growing through the virtual space and the mind power of all the students in the room. As teams of people all investigating a solution, the students construct ideas, organize data, and concentrate on the facts that are available for problem-solving.  In this type of learning environment, gradually the experience of simulation of the global 21st century collaborative network is the way students become educated. 

Allison Goedde, Ed.D. EDHD, is the Off-campus Cohort Coordinator for the Master’s in Classroom Technology Degree at Bowling Green State University. For more information, visit
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