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Turn your classroom into an active learning environment

By Team ISTE
September 3, 2015
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When an approach to learning and teaching earns a nickname or two, that’s often a sign the approach has worn out its welcome and is being replaced with a more relevant method.

Such is the case with “sit and get” or “sage on the stage,” the teaching method that chains students to their seats and puts teachers front and center in a lecture format. Those days are on their way out.

Replacing this approach is active learning – and with it learning spaces that allow for collaborative, personalized and project-based learning.

Dale Basye, who co-authored the new ISTE book Get Active: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Student Successwith Peggy Grant, Stefanie Hausman and Tod Johnston, understands that transforming learning spaces can be met with resistance. After all, it’s difficult to change teaching methods, give up some control and transform a classroom or create new learning spaces on a budget.

But that doesn’t mean educators can’t use a few tricks to create active learning spaces on a small scale.

“Children respond well to novelty,” Basye says. “If they enter a room that’s different, they open up more to the lesson and are more in the moment as to what learning and teaching can be.”

Basye offers these suggestions for jumpstarting the creation of active learning spaces:

Upset the apple cart.

Get rid of the traditional classroom layout of rows of desks and the teacher at the front of the room. Put chairs or desks in small groups for collaborative work. When it’s time to share the work, move the seating into a circle with the teacher in the middle. Time for independent study? Let students move to the outer edges of the classroom with pillows or cushions.

“Think flexible and change the configuration throughout the day,” Basye suggests. “With this approach, children have equity in the situation and in the physical space. They have power or a say in where they sit as long as it’s not disruptive.”

Start with affordable solutions.

Sure, there are some amazing products out there to create a futuristic, sleek active learning space like specialized seating, mobile desks and even hanging reading pods, but you don’t have to invest in the expensive options. Add tennis balls to desk and chair legs so workspaces can be moved without a huge disruption or damage to floors. If you have a small budget to work with, purchase pillows and cubbies to create cozy spaces for independent reading. Or use whiteboard paint to make all sorts of surfaces “writable.” Basye jokes that in addition to allowing children to collaborate and teachers to see if students are understanding a concept, whiteboard surfaces also appeal to students’ natural urge to damage school property.

Incorporate the four Cs.

Creating an active learning space shouldn’t just be about moving furniture; it has to advance learning and teaching. Turn to the four Cs — collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking — to visualize how learning spaces might be arranged and how learning will play out in these spaces.

Collaboration is the largest part of the equation so make sure the spaces are flexible. Address creativity by creating a makerspace. Conquer critical thinking and communication, two important components of the ISTE Standards for Students, by making work areas for project-based learning.

Think outside the classroom (literally).

Learning doesn’t have to take place within four walls. Allow students to take discussion groups outside. Outfit hallways with beanbag chairs or café tables so students can collaborate. One San Diego, California, school built classrooms with roll-up doors that open onto a courtyard.

“Kids really respond to the freeing feeling, but the teacher is still connected,” Basye says.

Mimic digital age workplaces.

Libraries need not be places for shushing. Outfit yours with comfortable furniture and have the feel of an internet café. These areas look more like the Google work environment than an old-fashioned school library. It’s an approach that makes sense as educators work to build digital age skills.

Go mobile with technology.

Laptops, tablets and smartphones can be easily incorporated into an active learning environment because of their portability and mobility.

Expect four amazing outcomes from your foray into active learning spaces, according to Get Active co-author Peggy Grant who focuses on the theory and pedagogy behind active learning.  

Engagement. Because students are making choices about how they learn, what they learn and are involved in projects, they become more absorbed in the learning. 

Rich content knowledge. When content is applied to the real world and students participate in virtual visits and simulations in flexible spaces, the learning goes deep.

Digital age skills. The active learning approach and its matching spaces allow students to tinker with technology and other materials without fear of failure. This gives them confidence to learn about new tools, and down the line, the workplace. 

Collaboration. Students become self directed and take charge of their learning. Students work together in an assortment of ways, giving them time to self-manage and self-assess.

Want to collaborate with other educators who are passionate about transforming classroom learning spaces? The ISTE Learning Spaces Network includes nearly 700 educators discussing this topic.