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Empower students in a collaborative, flexible learning environment

By Kristin Harrington
May 11, 2017
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Creating active, flexible learning spaces is often associated with modern designs and stylish furniture. But there is a far more important component than sleek desktops and brightly colored soft seating. Changing the mindsets of teachers and students is the most crucial element of flexible learning environments.

The ultimate goal is a student-centered classroom where the teacher acts as a facilitator, not a lecturer. This transformation doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum. It is a process that involves numerous stakeholders, resources, time and creativity. Fortunately, the ISTE Standards for Students provides a framework that can help districts communicate their vision of a student-centered classroom to teachers and students.

How we did it

Flagler County School District, a 1:1 iPad and MacBook district in Florida, features collaborative learning spaces in each of our nine schools. This initiative began in 2010 and since then, we have converted multipurpose rooms and labs into collaborative classrooms equipped with  flexible seating, collaborative display panels, and other hands-on and technology resources to help students learn and create. Students use their mobile devices to research, solve problems and connect both locally and globally.

When visitors first step into our classrooms, they are initially impressed by the design and spaciousness of our rooms. But after hanging around a bit, they discover that the learning taking place is the star attraction.

ISTE Standards in action

We built our spaces around the concepts spelled out in the ISTE Standards for Students. We provide the space and necessary resources for students to conduct research, collaborate, engage in the engineering process and publish their work to authentic audiences. Here are some of the ways Flagler County teachers are using the ISTE Standards in our flexible learning spaces:

Smithsonian/ePals Invent-It Challenge Project

Students at Rymfire Elementary recently used the collaboration space in their Oasis Media Center to participate in the Smithsonian/ePals Global Invent-It Challenge. This project tasks students to think about a real-world environmental issue and engineer a planet-friendly solution. Applying an experience from their own lives, several students created an artificial reef using damaged home parts from a recent hurricane. Students researched inventors and related inventions, developed prototypes, tested models and created advertisements to market their inventions. Classrooms connect with other student inventors around the world to share their designs and learn about issues affecting other areas.

  • In this example, students act as Empowered Learners by choosing how they will solve a real-world problem, how they will conduct trials to determine if their solution is working, and how they will market their invention. Flexible seating and large spaces in their media center allow students to decide how and where they can best achieve their learning goals. The Google Suite provides a way for students to communicate their progress to teachers and receive timely feedback.

  • Our active learning spaces provide students with a variety of tools, materials, devices and programs to help them be Innovative Designers, and think creatively and engage in the engineering process. 3D printers, Legos screwdrivers, robotics parts and other tools allow students to explore and problem-solve while creating prototypes for their inventions.

  • Our students act as Knowledge Constructors as they conduct research; they are Computational Thinkers as they collect and analyze data during trials; and they become Creative Communicators when they market their inventions. Students also act as Digital Citizens by sharing their work and giving credit for any graphics or information they include in their presentations.

Middle school switchgrass trials

Students in Andrew Medearis’ STEM classroom at Buddy Taylor Middle School are facilitating a switchgrass biomass growing trial in a partnership with Ernst Seed Company and Penn State University. Students will attempt to create biodiesel and bioethanol, and later a bio-product — moisture absorbing pellets — from the switchgrass. They will collect and analyze data from the crops and use time-lapse cameras to document the growth of the switchgrass. This is a great example of how authentic learning can take place in many types of environments.

  • The Computational Thinker standard is addressed throughout this project. Students regularly collect and analyze data from HOBO sunlight, temperature and moisture data-logger pendants.

  • Students are Innovative Designers as they work through the engineering process in their attempt to create a bio-product. Perseverance is a necessary skill, as this process is difficult even for experienced farmers.

  • It is also essential that students develop as Creative Communicators, with the ability to communicate ideas clearly and effectively as they report findings to their teachers and other stakeholders.

Tips for initiating collaborative learning spaces and lessons

Here are some tips you may find helpful when creating new learning spaces in your schools.

Ensure a shared vision. Prior to designing and creating our space,  our coordinator of innovation, Joey DiPuma, met with school stakeholders and asked what their goals were for the space, how they would like the space to be used and why they thought the space was necessary to accomplish their goals.  

Involve students in the process. In our Flagler County schools, students helped name the space, chose colors and in some cases even help design and paint as well. This gave students ownership of the environment and brought to light ideas that adults wouldn’t have thought of.

Reuse, repurpose and recycle. In many of our flexible learning spaces, we converted existing furniture and created storage using everyday items. For example, in several renovated science labs, we took existing tables and painted them bright colors, added wheels and black painted tops. This prevented waste and saved a ton of money.

Look for existing projects. A lot of educators and organizations have already created some great projects. Borrow their ideas and resources. Some will even connect you with other classrooms. Our favorites are The Buncee Buddies program, the Smithsonian/ePals Invent-It Challenge and the #GlobalSpeedChat project. Before creating your own lessons, reach beyond your classroom walls to see what’s already out there.

If you are in the north Florida area, consider touring our Flagler County active learning spaces. You can also take a virtual tour by downloading the  Flagler County Collaborative Learning Spaces iBook or Google Version of iBook (for non-Mac users).

Kristin Harrington is a digital support colleague for Flagler County School District. She is a co-moderator for #FLedChat, which takes place on Twitter each Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. Follow her on Twitter @KristinCHarr.

Joey DiPuma is the coordinator of innovation for Flagler County School District in Palm Coast, Florida. In this role, he designs and implements the active learning spaces in schools across the district. Follow him on Twitter @josephdipuma.

Share the ISTE Standards with your students and download the free 'I am a digital age learner' classroom poster.

Photo credit: Joey DiPuma