Better-Designed Schools, Better-Educated Students
By Dick Resch, for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Green Bay Area Public School District officials are working on a master plan to revamp our city's schools. They may finish as soon as this November.
That plan is sorely needed. Green Bay's schools are overcrowded - and in some cases have fallen into disrepair.
Fortunately, school district leaders appear committed to doing more than sprucing up old buildings. They're considering re-inventing Green Bay's classrooms to accommodate the different ways students learn today - and to teach the skills needed to succeed in our technology-driven economy.
They're right to do so. Educational researchers are increasingly concluding that classroom design can have an outsized impact on student performance.
The education status quo isn't working. America's performance in math, science, and reading has remained mostly unchanged for the last decade.
More than 1.2 million kids drop out of high school annually. Researchers partially blame those dropouts on the fact that many students don't see the connection between their studies and the job market.
One way to address that disconnect? By designing and building classrooms that support the ways that students actually learn, rather than forcing them into one-sizefits-all learning environments.
Some lessons may require students to focus in order to master them, while others may necessitate interaction with classmates or space for getting creative. Classrooms must be flexible enough to accommodate all those tasks.
That means that teachers may spend more time roaming, providing individualized assistance and coaching, rather than lecturing at the front of the room. Students, meanwhile, may be free to sit in small groups, engage in hands-on projects, converse with one another, and interact with technology.
There's evidence that this approach works. Studies from the National Training Laboratories show that students retain just 5 percent of what they "learn" via the traditional lecture format. Empowering students to practice by doing results in a 75 percent retention rate.
All told, school design can affect student performance by up to 25 percent - for better and for worse, according to a study from the United Kingdom's University of Salford. The difference in learning rates between students in better-designed classrooms and those in poorly designed ones is equivalent to a full year of educational progress.
Most young people are being educated in environments conceived years ago. In Green Bay, it's been over a decade since there was a comprehensive assessment of the school district's buildings.
The good news is that redesigning schools for the future does not necessarily require big public expenditures.
"We're not talking about major investment on behalf of the school or local authority - quite the opposite -simple choices in how classrooms are used and evidence-based decisions when schools are being built," said University of Salford lead researcher Professor Peter Barrett.
His research found that classrooms with natural light, ergonomically advanced desks, and spaces that allow teachers to change classroom layout all correlate with high student performance.
Green Bay's leaders seem to be on board with that vision. Modernizing the district's schools is one of the top goals of the master plan. "Modernization encompasses everything from what we call modern learning spaces, flexible learning spaces, things that are a little bit different from the typical classrooms that we've seen for decades," said Nick Kent, an architect with Plunkett Raysich and the lead author of the plan, in an interview with WLUK, Channel 11.
Green Bay school district officials have titled their formal study of the district's needs "Envisioning A Brighter Future." If Green Bay makes appropriate investments in its school facilities, then that brighter future will come to pass for our city's students.
Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture in Bellevue.