Reinventing Invention: 5 things we learned from Prototyping the new Charles City Middle School

For most of us, it’s tough to understand what new space will feel like from looking at lines on paper. This is especially true if you are thinking about doing something that hasn’t been done before. If you are a public school district, you want to get it right the first time; you don’t have much of an appetite to be the first to fail. This creates a challenge for those of us working to create/invent more responsive educational environments. So for the design of the new Charles City Middle School, we decided to try something different.

Taking our cues from the book “Makespace”, we decided to “Work Big Early” by building full scale mockups of two different learning studios for the new Charles City Middle School. Working with teachers as designers, the list of possible design concepts was narrowed to two. By building full scale prototypes, teachers could take each concept “for a test drive” by bringing students to the prototype and holding class before the school district makes a final decision on the design of the Learning Studios. Not surprisingly, we learned things that never would have been discovered in a typical design process. Here are five ideas that will inform the design solution.

1. Breaking kids up from a classroom setting and moving them into small groups helped them stay focused on their learning. Counterintuitive, right? The best way to get students focused is to shut the doors, pull the blinds, and seal them off from the outside world, right? Why else would we work so hard to separate students into standard, large group compartments? Turns out, letting students work in smaller groups can amp up their learning intensity. Small learning spaces are just as important as larger ones.

2. Autonomy drives student engagement. Watching students scour the prototype to find the perfect setting for their work was fascinating. It was like a treasure hunt….a trip they could take without needing teacher permission. Shaping the environment to meet their learning needs sparks their imagination and eagerness to tackle the task at hand. Daniel Pink came to the same conclusion in his book “Drive”. So let’s create learning environments that give students choice!

3. Students are flexible and adaptable to change. Teachers decided to put the prototype to the test by mixing things up, co-teaching and using interdisciplinary instruction. Day one, two classes in a large group setting were asked to investigate whether temperature affects the rate of dissolving. Day two, an entire grade took over the commons and stage for Reader’s Theater. Both days involved changing learning environments, activities, and student interaction. Students were very willing to be interactive, and effortlessly faced the new challenges. Educational facilities need to be equally flexible and adaptable to change.

4. Non-traditional spaces create new opportunities for teaching and learning. Both students and teachers liked the “Cave spaces” where students and teachers could work in small groups, in a semi private setting. The partial walls create a feeling of enclosure, but the openness to the commons invites activity. Judging from the testing of the prototype, these will be among the most highly utilized spaces in the entire building.

5. Be bold and break the mold! Students were fascinated with the treehouse concept. There is a lot of potential learning that goes on when students play, and recent studies have shown how cognitive function heats up after students start moving. School designers should tap into students’ natural desire to move and to play and turn that internal drive into engagement by creating an environment designed to inspire the mind, body, and spirit. Sometimes we need to forget convention and focus on invention to develop stronger solutions!

Sam Johnson, AIA, LEED AP, REFP
Director PreK-12 Design Group

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