Learning environments in the 21st Century

It has to be said that there are a number of correlations between a cemetery and a classroom, as many have previously noted; endless rows all perfectly aligned, in a rectangular plot of space, with the surrounding environment itself rarely being altered or updated. Over the years, the classroom has remained a traditional space for children, yet in a technology-driven and connected world, it doesn’t accurately reflect the needs of pupils in the 21st Century.

In an interview with HundrED, Abdul Chohan, CEO of the ESSA Academies Trust in Bolton, explained that the most exciting and effective learning environment would be related to real-world learning.

He said: “It’s kind of interesting – you get people walking into a classroom talking about leaves and photosynthesis, but they’re coming into the only place where there’s no photosynthesis happening! The whole school is surrounded by trees and grass, and different things that you can go and look at, but there is this intrinsic need just to be able to sit in one place and to be fed information.

“The world is a classroom you should be able to go out and explore. Of course there are limits on budgets etc., but I think the greatest limit is mind-set – the teacher feels we have to be in the classroom, and we have to complete these worksheets or work through these pages in a text book. It limits the ability to be creative.”

Creativity thrives beyond the walls of the classroom, so should a modern learning environment reflect this? Should we be aspiring to more than four walls and rows of desks and chairs? The answer is of course yes. We need to provide our children with a variety of opportunities to allow them to ask questions, solve problems and build those all-important skills for their future careers.

Education experts Eric C. Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray, believe that the classroom setting should be updated to emphasise learning centred spaces, collaboration, self-directed learning, inquiry, exploration and creation, active learning, and relationship building, all of which will help improve student engagement.

So what should a 21st Century learning environment look like? Here are just a few examples of innovative and more modern spaces already taking place in schools across the world…

Blurring boundaries

Fuji Kindergarten in Japan has completely removed the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, turning its school roof into a circular, endless playground and putting nature at the forefront of its teaching with trees growing right through the middle of classrooms. The idea here is that physical elements of an environment can have a negative impact on learners, including factors such as temperature control, lighting, air quality etc. Therefore, the kindergarten decided to change its design to include: no walls between classrooms to allow noise to travel; water wells to encourage informal meet-ups; a circular roof to allow kids to run; and trees with giant safety nets, used as toys for them to climb, jump and shake! They can even climb to their class with a giant tree in the middle of the school. This environment is designed to inspire children, spark their inquisitiveness, accelerate their learning and nurture their creativity.

Hands-on play

When physical spaces cannot be changed significantly, creativity in the classroom can be incredibly valuable. Providing pupils with hands-on learning opportunities can give them the skills to link their lessons to real-life scenarios and help them understand the links between what they learn at school and how it could be applied to the working world. For example, Newcastle-under-Lyme College (NULC), invested in a LEGO Education Innovation Studio to enhance the curriculum and provide its students with opportunities to build their “soft” skills such as communication and problem-solving. Andy Snape, Mathematics lecturer and assistant head of Sixth Form at NULC said: “It’s something a bit different, fun and innovative. Getting hands-on means the students can really experience first-hand the practical application of the theories behind it, rather than sitting in a class writing formulas and drawing diagrams. Creating a cross-curricular approach also helps them understand where their skills can be used in other activities and lessons.”

Immersive environment

There are companies that can provide schools with truly immersive learning environments in the classroom that bring their learning to life. For example, now>press>play provides schools with an audio resource, allowing children to use wireless headphones in order to become a part of the story, bring their imagination to the forefront, and truly engage them in their learning. This could be taken one step further with a whole sensory space too through the use of sound, smell, and emotions; imagine you wanted to tell your students the story of The BFG and discuss the different feelings certain characters experience. Rather than simply reading it and having a question and answer session, imagine recalling the story in a dark classroom, with sounds of big footsteps surrounding them, vibrating their seats with every stomp, and mist streaming slowly through the classroom. Creating an environment like this will help children fully immerse themselves within the story and ignite their creativity.

Whatever a ‘21st Century learning environment’ should look like, one thing’s for sure: it definitely isn’t a cemetery. It is about integrating technology, bringing the outside in, and providing less rigid spaces, and more collaborative, explorative environments.

What do you think we need to create exciting learning environments? Tweet us @Mango_Marketing