Facility Planning: Getting Personal

Sept. 1, 2007
The evolution of personalized learning environments.

Personalized learning environments have been evolving since the early 1800s. One teacher taught all grades — typically five to 15 students — in a one-room schoolhouse and worked with small groups of the same age and learning ability. From there, the Lancastrian School system developed as a result of urbanization and lasted until about 1840; large-group instruction is one of its legacies. The Transitional School (1840-50) unified separate reading and writing schools, and contained classrooms with small rooms for individual recitation.

The first graded public school was Boston's Quincy Grammar School, built in 1848. Regimented instruction gradually gave way to discussion, evaluation, investigation and self-expression. Class sizes gradually were reduced to 40, 35 and then 30 students.

In the 1960s, “individualized education” recognized the uniqueness of students. Modular scheduling and interdisciplinary teaching required personalized learning environments in four instructional modes: large group (100 to 200 students); medium groups or labs (25 to 35 students); small groups (6 to 15 students); and independent study.

The open-plan schools of the 1960s seemed to provide flexibility — space virtually changing at will or with minimal effort, adapting to large- and small-group instruction. Personalized spaces were created with operable or demountable partitions, space dividers or rolling cabinets.

The 1980s outcome-based education (OBE) emphasized success for all students. OBE supporters asserted that it would deliver a more complete education with a variety of teaching methods to address differing learning styles of students.

Along the way, design challenges have included incorporating video, voice and data systems into learning environments; evolving teaching philosophies; integrated thematic curriculum; and school-within-a-school and house concepts. Schools grew bigger as unscheduled, personalized breakout spaces were added.

One of the themes of Breaking Ranks, published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in 1996, was personalization. It called for school units of no more than 600 students, and for flexible, personalized learning areas to be designed — classrooms, team areas, small-group areas, tech rooms and forums.

Today, a personalized learning environment can be anywhere. Wireless technology enables students to use computers within controlled school locations or from non-school locations via citywide wireless systems.

Personalized learning environments should consider space design and flexibility, furniture, and classrooms enhanced with pictures and projects. They should offer students opportunities for interacting, studying, researching, teaming, tutoring, presenting, applying and lecturing.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis.

He can be reached at [email protected].

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