Learning Spaces Re-Design, Going All-In from the Start

Research strongly suggests that learning environments have a significant and positive impact on student learning. To that end, more and more schools are redesigning and repurposing existing spaces – whether computer labs, classrooms, or libraries into modern, technology-rich new learning spaces. In addition to new lighting, fresh paint, and the latest technology, these spaces are increasingly becoming areas of collaboration, creativity, and innovation for both students and staff.

The plan to redesign our learning environments began last summer in our three elementary schools. It made sense for us to begin there since our elementary schools were approaching 1:1 and the need for a traditional computer lab was no more. Our plan was to then focus on our middle school library and labs this summer (2016) and high school library next (2017).

Every person we spoke with (and every articles we read) suggested we take it slow and to gradually transform our new space over the course of a year or more. From a budgetary standpoint that made sense. But to achieve the goal of transforming the culture as well as the space, we needed to redesign the spaces over the summer months so our teachers and students would be able to walk into a completely remodeled and repurposed environment on the first day of school. In essence, we wanted more than just a face lift, we wanted a complete transformation.

The vision and mission of our redesigns were focused on three main goals:

  1. Design a space that is student-centered
  2. Design a space that fosters collaboration
  3. Design a space that encourages creativity and innovation

Step 1: Pre-Design Phase (Visits, Research, Purpose)

With no predetermined floor plans or expectations, we began visiting as many schools and universities in the area as possible to get a sense of what was possible and what was needed in our District. Visits to Wissahickon Middle School, Germantown Academy, String Theory Charter and others, provided us with the understanding of what was already taking place in K-12 education. Visits to the Grasp Laboratory (University of Pennsylvania), NextFab (Philadelphia), and the Krause Innovation Studio (Penn State University) provided an insight to what the expectations were for our students once they graduated from Garnet Valley. We understood these new learning environments needed to be interdisciplinary, collaborative, and offer plenty of hand-on activities and materials for higher-order thinking and problem-solving opportunities. The vision was set.

Step 2: Design Phase (Collaboratively Plan and Listen)

As with any large undertaking, having multiple stakeholders and various perspectives represented is vital. Planning to change a space and culture that existed in schools for years requires teacher input and buy-in. We shared our vision with our faculty, staff, and students; at parent meetings, and during School Board presentations. Our role as administrators in planning the space was to elicit feedback from faculty and students, design the space with maximum flexibility to allow our staff the freedom to change the space to fit their needs over time. When redesigning our elementary computer labs (now Collaboration & Innovation Labs) the feedback from staff and the expertise and forward-thinking of our Instructional Technology Specialists (@GVSD_ITS) was invaluable. When planning the redesign of our middle school computer labs and library, our faculty was given the autonomy to design a space that was inviting, functional, and met the needs of the school and vision of the District. In both environments, the culture and function of the space needed to change as much as the layout.

We brought in several vendors, sat through countless presentations and sales pitches, evaluated many quotes, and ultimately decided to repurpose existing furniture where possible, and purchase equipment, materials, and technology that fit within our budget to tie in the spaces.

Going through the budget process is never fun, but it is extremely difficult to get approved if the plan for the space does not have its foundation in teaching and learning. No School Board will approve fancy furniture purchases, nor should they. The pre-design phase of research and visiting other institutions was crucial to our success. We clearly understood that alternative funding was going to be needed as well. Our Home and School Associations, local businesses, mini-grants, and fundraisers all worked in harmony to create a workable budget for the spaces.

Step 3: Implementation Phase (Build it)

We made sure any outside equipment and furniture purchases included installation and setup as we didn’t have the time nor the staff available over the summer to dedicate in those area. When it came to the actual build, we recruited creative teachers and took on all volunteers that wanted to lend a helping hand. At Garnet Valley, we were lucky to have such artistic minded people in every school. Everyone from our Art teachers to literacy coaches to tech support contributed to the redesign of the space.

Our Technology Support (who work more like Tech Integrators in our District) and our Instructional Technology Coaches worked together last summer to create our Collaboration & innovation Labs. This summer, Kim Uhrig (GVMS Reading Specialist) and Kate Bienkowski (Instructional Literacy Coach), volunteered countless hours to the middle school project. Although they claim it was “therapeutic,” the amount of time spent on research, shopping, painting, building, and rebuilding is a testament to them (and to all other teachers like them), who use their summer “vacation” to get ready for the upcoming school year.

Step 4: Re-Design Phase (Evaluate, Revise, Redesign)

It is impossible to get it right the first time. We fully understood the need for these learning environments to change over time. Flexibility in the design has allowed our spaces to change as needed. We constantly add materials and activities to increase engagement and participation and our Instructional Technology Specialists work with our classroom teachers to design projects and lessons that align to our goals in each area.

The lessons learned from our elementary and middle school renovations will certainly help guide the work in our high school. With the high school library redesign set for summer 2017, we are well on our way with Step 1 and looking forward to working with our new librarian, Melissa Josef (@SuburbanBarnyd), and our high school teachers and students for Step 2.