Flexible classrooms enable personalized routines and can unlock student potential.
(Previously published in American School & University Magazine)
Imagine your morning routine. It may include some independent time to reflect or prepare for your day's agenda. Maybe you seek a moment to chat with family and friends and wish them a good day. Perhaps you have a morning briefing with colleagues. And within all that, you may take a movement break to refuel or simply stir your thoughts.
Plenty of studies and articles discuss the effect of routines and habits on an individual's performance and well-being. Books from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey have explored it. Even Dale Carnegie touched on it in his 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
The common thread throughout the research is that habits and routines provide a foundation for individuals to achieve their goals and limit the mental space needed to take care of the more trivial items that can quickly take over.
Now imagine you're an eighth grader or a sophomore in college. You're either going through seven 50-minute class periods or two three-hour lectures. Sure, you can choose the way you start your day and end it, but those six hours of your day are going to be defined by someone else's routine.
You need some individual time to reflect? Save it for third-period study hall. Need a movement break? You can go to the restroom, but don't take too long or you'll miss part of the class. Require time to rejuvenate by chatting for five minutes with friends? Wait until lunch.
In pockets across the United States and abroad, the stagnant classroom paradigm has been shifting toward a focus on "active learning" spaces. These spaces encourage fluid movement between individual and group work, rather than stationary seating facing one direction and one teacher. Learning has always been active in one way or another. However, the specific focus of building environments to encourage mobility has grown since the branding of the "active learning classroom."
Adaptive learning environments can help translate the benefits of routine in the working world to students of all ages. They also provide cognitive benefits and prepare students for the freelance future of work.
Much research supports students' movement needs, such as a 2013 study by Matthew T. Mahar, et al. His research found that activities during a class may improve student performance, especially among those students who had the most trouble staying on task initially.
Reviewing this, along with findings from the aforementioned books, one can easily make the connection between movement breaks and routines. After all, haven't you already thought about getting up and stretching since beginning to read this article? Although the push for active learning environments has been more supportive to students than rote-based lecture halls, the speed of this transition needs to quicken.
Current and forthcoming learners - Gen Z or the Cloud generation - may be the most skilled at adaptation since those of the 15th century, when learners had to adjust to the printing press. Modern students are the first natives of the digital age and fluent on virtually any screen; they are accustomed to rapidly changing technologies and ways of communication.
These learners also are poised to enter a workforce that is becoming more entrepreneurial. Of the 10 million jobs added to the U.S. economy since 2005, 94 percent of them are categorized as freelancing or another form of non-traditional employment, according to a 2016 study by economists at Harvard and Princeton.
Yet by and large, the solution that Gen Z's predecessors are using to shift learning environments has been to put some casters on chairs and add more wi-fi bandwidth.
If the economy is shifting toward more freelance work, how can learning environments adapt to support those future freelancers? Freelance workers operate on their own schedule and work out of environments chosen based on their own routines and needs. Giving students the opportunity to begin cultivating these skills prior to their professional lives is what we identify as freelance learning.
Now, systematically upending the scheduling and room use of entire campuses to empower students to attend whichever class they want, whenever they want, is not feasible - at least not at this point.
But if educators and planners work within the boundaries of the existing educational system, they can use routine and movement to create more flexible environments and enable students to learn the way that works best for them.
Take a standard lecture hall, flatten out a few tiers and install some mobile workspaces. Now you've created a space that accommodates rote-based lectures as well as group or individual work. One student who is captivated by a lecture can continue note-taking while another student, sparked by a part of the lecture, can immediately begin a project outline or business plan. Will the space lose some seating capacity? Most likely. But what students gain in immediate, authentic pursuit of their learning is worth it.
Another example is the much-buzzed-about "makerspace." This can be a woodshop, 3D printing lab, or virtual reality creation space. A makerspace's fullest potential is for students to rapidly prototype their own ideas into physical pieces. However, the spaces often are used only as a place for a student to learn building skills. Instead, cultivating students' ideas must be the first step in their pursuit of building the widget of the future, not left as something for them to eventually come to on their own. The best makerspace is one that is adaptable to both brainstorming and building.
Gen Z is operating in a world that is moving too fast for that "wait and see" mentality. In addition to using the latest 3D printer or robotic arm, these students will need a space to brainstorm ideas with their peers and have time to themselves. Educators can't force students to be in build-mode only when they're in fourth period, for example. Students should be able to cultivate their individual routines that help them learn best.
Students are going to be working with and for one another. Reconfigurable learning environments can help them do just that, while supporting the facilitation of freelance learning and enabling the cognitive benefits of movement. The nature of work for tomorrow's generation is transforming fast, so today's learning environments will have to catch up.