IIW Minnesota

What Do 21st Century Schools Look Like?

School facility design has changed significantly over the past 10 to 20 years. We’re thinking differently about what our schools need to be and how the facilities themselves can actually position our students (and their teachers) for success.

The words that often used to describe 21st Century schools are: flexible, healthy and sustainable. We want them to be able to adapt. We want them to create spaces that lower sick days and increase academic achievement. We want them to be good stewards of resources – both financially and environmentally – and lower operating costs whenever possible.

Kennedy Wind TurbineBut what does a 21st Century school really look like? Here are a few of the elements inside progressive K-12 facilities that get results for their teachers, students and communities:

Integrated Technology
Integrating technology into school facilities extends beyond Wi-Fi and interactive white boards. It is engrained throughout the school. It’s not simply about bringing technology – iPads, Google Chromebooks and the like – into the school, but leveraging technology to power schools in new ways.

While implementing a variety of green building practices into the design of a new Minnesota elementary school, we took it a step further and integrated the technology into the classroom. Students can see how much energy the wind turbine and solar panels create and teachers have integrated the exercises into their curriculum to give students a hands-on learning experience. Now, students can see how a wind turbine and solar panels are reducing the school’s energy consumption – in real-time and over time.

Collaborative Environments
Ask a first grader what arithmetic is and you likely will get a blank stare. The core of teaching today is far beyond the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. Today’s top careers require skills like critical thinking, communication and the ability to collaborate as a team. K-12 schools are changing their practices – including the layout of their facilities – to help students and teachers learn how to collaborate.

One school transformed its media center into a set of new, flexible learning spaces. A series of movable walls and flexible furniture allows teachers to create four traditional early elementary classrooms or one large group area with three small group areas for their activities. By collaborating, the teachers foster the development of new ideas and expose their students to varying groups and perspectives.

Hands-On Learning
Labs are not just for science class anymore. It’s a culture that schools create and infuse across all disciplines to encourage safe, creative exploration. Students hunger for real-world applications and the ability to connect to the outside world. That’s what made the connection between the school’s wind turbine and the classroom so valuable. Students get to learn how the technology works (from a textbook perspective), use technology to uncover the analytics, test theories and discover firsthand what that means to their school.

This need for creating hands-on learning experiences increases the importance of flexible learning environments. It can be seen in “makerspaces,” also known as DIY labs and flexible “fablabs,” where students build concepts, pose questions, bounce ideas off one another, and together, create something that solves a problem. This allows teachers to go from an environment most conducive for explanation to one that thrives on application, critical thinking and problem solving.

Learning doesn’t standstill – and neither should school facilities. Inside the exterior walls of 21st Century schools are flexible spaces that are constantly integrating technology, fostering collaboration and delivering hands-on learning. We want our classrooms to be as dynamic as the world we live in.

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