Engaged Learning

Tips for equipping modern classrooms.

A sixth-grader inserts a 51/4-inch floppy disk into the machine and gazes excitedly at a tiny green-and-black screen. The simplistic graphics on her computer hold her spellbound as she plays a game designed to improve her math skills. The bell rings, and the child is disappointed because she has to leave.

Although this may have occurred frequently years ago, such an out-of-date scenario would stir laughter in many of today's students. It's commonplace for students to have computers in their homes and know more about computers than many adults.

The acceleration of technology has been phenomenal. Computers in schools offer many opportunities: worldwide communications, hands-on real-time simulations, multimedia presentations and an inexhaustible well of information. To be successful, school districts must keep pace with technological advancement and integrate these capabilities into classrooms.

And, to accommodate that technology and the evolving philosophies about how students learn, schools must equip classrooms with furnishings that are mobile, flexible and convertible. In a modern classroom, a tablet-arm chair no longer will suffice.

How Students Learn

Research on how students learn and retain knowledge is changing not only how teachers teach, but also a classroom's shape, size, organization and furnishings. Classrooms should be flexible, dynamic and integrated with the tools of technology.

Technology removes education further from the factory age and closer to the goal of creating "lifelong learners."

"Teaching a child facts is useless," says Ronald Erdmann, superintendent of Richmond-Burton High School District 157 in Richmond, Ill. "Yet, teaching a child how to get to those facts is crucial."

Many schools are moving away from instruction in which students attend 50-minute lectures, much of which they will forget as soon as they are tested on it, if not sooner. The focus has shifted to learning how to learn. If it is true that people learn 90 percent of their skills on the job, accumulating facts in school will not benefit them. Instead, they must know how to retrieve facts quickly.

In an "Engaged Learning Model," the teacher's role progresses from being the "sage on the stage" to being the "guide on the side." Instead of a dispensation of facts, a class session becomes a participatory gathering of facts.

With this model, classroom organization must now accommodate periods of direction, guidance, research, sharing and summary. These activities will take place in one period or block of time, and the furnishings must be flexible to support these dynamics. (See the sidebar below for an example of a block of time.)

Access to technology and flexible classrooms lend themselves to interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary learning, which improves a student's understanding of a concept by approaching it from many perspectives.

Furnishings for Rapid Change

To embrace these changes, classrooms must be large enough to accommodate transformation, and furnishings must move easily and convert from one use to another. In preparing for a new high school that is scheduled to open later this year in School District 157, Erdmann and the administration wanted classrooms that would support various activities during a single period.

Working with staff, designers developed a desk, then diagrammed various settings: the traditional lecture, small-group activities, larger panel discussions, independent research, computer lab and other learning models. To accommodate these models, the classrooms grew to 900 square feet. The rooms needed storage space for various project materials, as well as wall space, windows, marker and tack boards, and, of course, computers with access to the Internet and other information systems.

Cabinetry was installed to store various media and other materials. A planned overhead LCD projector will connect to the teacher's workstation. Hard-wired to the school's technology backbone, five desktop computers are installed in a fixed location. Multiple light controls will allow three different light levels to adapt to different activities.

All the teachers say they want to be able to have every student in class at a computer without picking up and moving to a computer lab. Ultimately, they believe, all students will carry computers in their backpacks. An instantly connected computer lab is possible with a continuous network connection wireway installed along one side of the classroom (until wireless connections are feasible). The desks slide to one side, and network connections run through the desks' wire troughs to the wall.

More Than a Desk

In the "Engaged Learning Model," the most significant change is the desk. Tablet arm chairs are history. Desks need to be flat so they can be pushed together to create conference tables or other configurations. They should be large enough to accommodate a laptop computer, a textbook and a notebook. Chairs should be mobile so they can be used in a variety of ways.

The student desk becomes a 30-inch-by-30-inch table with a wire trough underneath for network cabling. These desks can be quickly deployed in several arrangements and respond to the flexibility teachers desire.

These changes allow for dynamic instruction that includes the use of technology. Access to information is integrated into the educational model and becomes one of the tools facilitating interaction, communication, simulation and applied learning.

Just how would a classroom be altered during the course of a typical period or block of time? Here is a typical schedule in an "Engaged Learning Model" environment:

-In the lecture setting, a teacher describes the objectives of the period, how the objectives will be presented, and the tools that will be available. He or she then assigns groups to work as teams. 5 to 10 minutes.

-The desks are arranged as conference tables, one for each team. A team can develop concepts, research and presentation plans, and team assignments. Some students may use a computer for research or graphics, others may conduct research, while others may prepare flipchart presentations. The team reunites to finalize its presentation. 30 to 40 minutes.

-Desks are returned to the lecture setting, and each group gives brief presentations, which may involve posters, computers or role-playing. 20 to 30 minutes.

-Desks may be moved again into a "panel discussion" configuration for discussion. 20 to 30 minutes.

-Total time: 75 to 110 minutes.

The mobility of the furniture, as well as the access to technology and the additional time, enhances the opportunity to transform a teacher from manager to coach. Different types of learners can engage a topic from a perspective that has meaning to them. Students learn to collaborate, communicate, investigate and present information.

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