Teaching is a complex art. There are many strategies and modalities that teachers can use to develop students’ skills and convey critical information—and successful teachers weave all of these together into a intricate tapestry of classroom techniques and practices. To do this effectively, however, teachers need an agile classroom environment that can quickly adapt to serve many functions.

FLEXIBLE GROUPINGS

A key challenge for educators is that students learn at different paces and have unique learning needs. To differentiate their instruction and meet these various needs, good teachers will use a mix of whole class, small group, and individual instruction.

For instance, a teacher might demonstrate a concept to the entire class at the beginning of a lesson, then have students break into smaller groups to discuss the concept or practice the skill. During this time, the teacher might also work one-on-one with some students who need extra help or attention.

A strategy that has become very popular in recent years is the idea of “flexible grouping.” This is where the teacher creates temporary groups that can last for one activity, a whole class period, or longer. The students work together in multiple configurations, depending on the activity and the desired learning outcomes.

Teachers use this strategy, she writes, “because it’s a great way to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of each student—and it allows … students to have the opportunity to work with, and learn from, their peers in a way that lets them feel comfortable contributing. When students work in a variety of groups, they learn to work independently and cooperatively with a variety of personalities.”

DIRECT VS. GUIDED INSTRUCTION

Another challenge for educators is balancing direct instruction, where they are imparting new knowledge or demonstrating a skill, with indirect or guided instruction, where they are allowing students to make discoveries, gather information, and infer meaning for themselves.

There are many types of guided instruction, such as inquiry-based learning (where teachers give students a guiding question to research or think about) or project-based learning (where teachers give students a task or challenge to solve).

This kind of self-directed learning can be accomplished individually or through collaborative learning, in which students work together and learn from each other.

Guided instruction promotes active learning, where students are fully engaged in and responsible for their own education. Because research suggests this can be a more effective technique in helping students learn than simply listening to a lecture, teachers are spending a growing amount of their class time on guided instruction. But there are still times when direct instruction makes sense.

Education researcher Robert Marzano recommends a technique he calls “enhanced discovery learning,” in which teachers prepare students for self-directed learning and provide assistance along the way.

“Teachers must make sure that students have the necessary knowledge to negotiate the nuances of the content,” he wrote for ASCD’s Educational Leadership. “This might involve some direct instruction. For example, before asking students to consider how best to stretch the hamstring muscle in cold weather, the teacher might present a series of lessons to clarify basic facts about muscles and their reaction to changes in temperature.”

HOW AGILE LEARNING SPACES CAN HELP

Successful teachers are like orchestra conductors, understanding how these various strategies fit together and knowing when to shift fluidly from one to another—from whole group to small group or from direct to guided instruction and back again.

But making this transition effectively requires agile learning spaces that easily can support different modes of teaching and learning. For instance, student desks and tables that can be rearranged quickly into various configurations makes teaching with flexible groupings much easier.

Different modes of teaching and learning work best with different arrangements of the classroom space. Education researcher Tim Springer has described the relationship between various instructional modalities and the settings that best support them as follows:

CONCLUSION

The ability to transition seamlessly between different teaching strategies and modalities depends in part on how agile the classroom environment is.

Learning spaces that are flexible and can support a wide range of learning styles and activities—with furniture that can be rearranged to accommodate different groupings and flows of information quickly and easily—are critical in helping teachers navigate these various modalities.

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As schools play an increasingly larger role in their community, here are four keys to designing school facilities for success.

Schools play a pivotal role in their community. High-quality schools offer so much more than just an education for their students; they also help strengthen the community by providing enrichment, health, and nutritional services for both children and their families.

When schools become community learning centers, everyone benefits—including students, teachers, parents, and the general public. But how schools are designed, equipped, and furnished can have a big impact on the success—or failure—of these initiatives.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

Good schools serve to energize their communities. They attract businesses and encourage community investment. They make communities a place where families want to live and stay.

Savvy school leaders know that students do better academically when they feel safe, comfortable, nourished, and inspired to learn. That’s why many K-12 leaders see the role of their institution as not just teaching students, but making sure students are happy, healthy, and secure.

What’s more, school leaders also know that students have a greater chance of success when their parents are engaged and informed.

As a result, a growing number of schools are open to the community outside normal hours to provide additional services such as adult classes, after school enrichment activities, student tutoring, breakfast and dinner, and even medical care.

This practice has led to a movement called “community schools,” in which school systems enter into partnerships with city agencies or nonprofit organizations to provide wraparound services that benefit the entire community.

There is evidence to suggest this approach is working. Community schools can be a successful strategy for improving schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act,according to a June 2017 report from the National Education Policy Center and the Learning Policy Institute. The report, Community Schools: An Evidence-Based Strategy for Equitable School Improvement, reveals that community schools are strongly supported by research, based on an examination of 125 peer-reviewed studies and program evaluations.

For instance, a 2003 study from Blank et al. found that community schools are making notable improvements in four key areas:

  • Student learning, including both academic achievement and nonacademic growth.
  • School effectiveness: There are stronger parent teacher relationships, higher teacher satisfaction, a more positive school culture, and greater community support.
  • Family engagement: Families are more stable, show more involvement, and take more responsibility for their children’s success.
  • Community vitality: Communities are safer and show more civic pride.

KEY DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS

Whether schools have formal partnerships with community organizations in place, or they’ve simply embraced a larger role within the community, these additional activities typically involve opening facilities for public use outside regular school hours.

And the design of a school facility—including how it is equipped and furnished—plays a key role in these efforts.

To achieve the greatest impact, school facilities should serve a variety of community needs. According to Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizen’s Guide for Planning and Design, from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, schools that serve as community learning centers should be accessible to people of all ages, for a wide range of purposes.

Here are four key design considerations that support this approach.

1. Involve The Community In Design

“DEVELOPMENT MUST BEGIN WITH A PLANNING AND DESIGN PROCESS THAT INCLUDES COMMUNITY MEMBERS AND REFLECTS THEIR NEEDS,”

To make sure the design of a facility reflects the community’s needs, school leaders should solicit input from all stakeholder groups, including students, teachers, administrators, parents, and even community organizations. Send out surveys, convene focus groups, and form public committees or task forces to make the design process as inclusive as possible.

2. Include Shared Public Spaces

That Are Accessible Year-Round The design of a facility helps communicate your values as an institution. If the design is open and user-friendly, it serves to welcome community involvement in the school. A closed-off design sends a very different signal.

When designing a facility, think about how you can make shared spaces such as auditoriums, sports facilities, cafeterias, libraries, media centers, computer labs, and maker spaces more open and accessible to the public. For instance, if you want these spaces to be used by students or members of the public after school hours, they should be located in a way that is easily accessible from outside, with plenty of parking if possible.

“IN THE PAST, MOST SCHOOLS WERE BUILT AS STAND-ALONE INSTRUCTIONAL FACILITIES THAT RESTRICTED—RATHER THAN ENCOURAGED—COMMUNITY ACCESS,” IN CONTRAST, TODAY’S SCHOOLS “MUST BE DESIGNED TO BE MORE OPEN.”

3. Embrace Flexibility And Adaptability

“The best school designs allow for spatial flexibility,” the report says. Flexible, open structures that allow spaces to be reconfigured for different types of uses expand the range of activities a school can support. This applies to the furniture in a school as well. Tablesdesks, and chairs that easily can be arranged into different configurations—and furniture with power supplies integrated seamlessly into the design—help make school facilities adaptable to several uses by students and the community.

4. Inspire Community Pride Aesthetics matter as well.

“In fulfilling these roles, schools should manifest the high standard of design appropriate to public buildings,” the report says. “They need not be costly, but they should add a sense of beauty, interest, and permanence to the community. By capturing the noble character of public architecture, they should serve as a visible symbol of community pride.”

EXAMPLES OF SUCCESS

The National Clearinghouse report provides several examples of these principles in action.

For instance, Michigan’s Gaylord High School was built in 1996 with the community in mind. Its performing arts center serves the entire community, with a 600-seat auditorium that is accessible from a large public entrance. Classrooms are designed to accommodate public use as well, with departmental offices where staff can securely store their personal items and valuable materials.

“School officials believe that community involvement in this project enabled passage of the school bond referendum; two previous referendums had failed,” the report says.

“THE ENTIRE GAYLORD COMMUNITY HAS DEVELOPED A STRONG VESTED INTEREST IN ITS SCHOOL, AND STUDENTS INTERACT DAILY WITH A BROAD RANGE OF COMMUNITY MEMBERS.”

At Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine, the school’s design supports project-based learning. Each of the school’s 15 academic communities has two classrooms, a large multipurpose room, a science lab, a project room, and offices for administrative and small-group use. The rooms vary in size and function, and their design creates plenty of flexibility.

“Movable partitions can be rearranged to create larger spaces,” the report explains. “In the science rooms, gas and water lines are located on outside walls to accommodate mobile lab tables. Multipurpose spaces have built-in display areas to highlight student projects for peer review, (and) more than 2,000 data ports are located throughout the learning complex.”

The entire community has equal access to the school’s resources as well.

“A large library and media center, an audiovisual center, television studio, and editing room, two gymnasiums, and a fitness center are open for community use,” the report says. “Students enrolled in the two-year culinary arts program can practice their lessons while cooking for patrons dining at the Round Table, a 50-seat restaurant with a separate entrance and access to the town square. The restaurant—its kitchen stocked with commercial cooking equipment—is open to the community during school hours, but is separate from the school cafeteria.”

By involving the community in the design process; including shared, publicly accessible spaces; embracing flexibility; and paying attention to aesthetics, K-12 leaders can inspire civic pride and enable their facilities to serve a wide variety of needs and purposes within the community for years to come—resulting in better student learning, school culture, family engagement, and community vitality.

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When we hear that a piece of furniture is ergonomically designed, we typically think of physical comfort. Does the design of the desk or chair “fit” the person for whom it’s intended? Is it comfortable to sit and learn?

These are important considerations when school leaders are buying furniture, but they aren’t the only aspects to examine. How the design makes users feel emotionally also
is critical—and this can have a big impact on student achievement.

Factors such as color and texture can affect a student’s mood significantly, and decades of research suggests this can influence a student’s ability to focus or succeed—for better or for worse.

In a 2003 paper titled “The Impact of Color on Learning,” Kathie Engelbrecht, then an interior designer for the architectural firm Perkins & Will of Chicago, wrote, “Just as we are programmed to identify with the human face, our body has a basic interpretation and reaction to certain colors.”

“JUST AS WE ARE PROGRAMMED TO IDENTIFY WITH THE HUMAN FACE, OUR BODY HAS A BASIC INTERPRETATION AND REACTION TO CERTAIN COLORS.”

Bright primary or neon colors will generate excitement, increase awareness of one’s surroundings, and heighten the mind’s production of chemicals that increase energy and activity. Muted colors or monochromatic environments have the opposite effect, triggering the release of chemicals in the brain that promote relaxation, calm, and lethargy.

Engelbrecht cited Frank H. Mahnke’s book Color, Environment and Human Response, in which Mahnke offered guidelines for integrating color into schools based on his own research in the fields of color and environmental psychology. Mahnke’s guidelines suggest that ideal color schemes depend on a student’s age and on the function of the space in question:

  • Preschool and elementary students prefer warm, bright colors, while cooler colors are recommended for upper grade and secondary classrooms.
  • Hallways can have more color range than classrooms and can be used to give the school a distinctive personality.
  • Libraries should use pale or light green colors to enhance quietness and concentration. Rooms, or sections of classrooms, that are intended to promote activity can use brighter tones.

Researchers Kristi S. Gaines and Zane D. Curry from Texas Tech University summarized a number of studies about the effects of color on students’ emotions and academic performance of students in a 2011 paper titled “The Effects of Color on Learning and Behavior.”

“Color is a powerful design element that produces profound psychological and physiological reactions,” they wrote. “Studies have shown a relationship between color preferences, emotions, and academic performance in students.”

“STUDIES HAVE SHOWN A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COLOR PREFERENCES, EMOTIONS, AND ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE IN STUDENTS.”

However, because color affects different types of students in different ways, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions about which colors are best for which types of learning environments, Gaines and Curry wrote. For instance, “the research conducted by Torice and Logrippo (1989) has shown that active children prefer cool colors and passive children are more comfortable surrounded by warm colors.”

To support a classroom environment that is as inclusive as possible, Gaines and Curry recommended a healthy “balance” in color applications for classrooms. Walls should be painted in warm, neutral colors, they recommended, while other elements of the room—such as the furniture—might offer a variety of color choices.

“WALLS SHOULD BE PAINTED IN WARM, NEUTRAL COLORS, THEY RECOMMENDED, WHILE OTHER ELEMENTS OF THE ROOM—SUCH AS THE FURNITURE—MIGHT OFFER A VARIETY OF COLOR CHOICES.”

Discovering a child’s color preferences and using those colors may be beneficial,” they added.

Students’ moods and emotions are influenced by more than just color. Textures, too, are a factor, says elementary school teacher Erin Klein.

The fabrics and materials that a piece of furniture is made from “also play a big role,” says Klein, who studied interior design in college before becoming a teacher in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “There are a lot of children coming to school who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or special needs, and a lot of them can be heavily affected by the different textures that are in classrooms.”

Some students take issue with soft fabrics, for instance. “If they have dry skin or eczema, their skin will naturally snag on some of the fabrics,” Klein says. “To us, it might sound silly—but for them, they become hyper-focused on the furniture, and they’re not able to concentrate on anything else. Anyone who’s ever been around a child who has some sort of sensory disorder will immediately relate to this.”

Often, it’s these environmental factors “that really inhibit students from being able to focus,” she concludes—“let alone enjoy the learning space.”

As with color, the key for educators is to offer furniture with a variety of textures—including both hard and soft seating options—because children react to different textures or materials in different ways.

“Just like when we personalize instruction—the more ways we teach, the more students we reach—the more furniture options we have, the more accommodating we will be to our students,” Klein explained.

“JUST LIKE WHEN WE PERSONALIZE INSTRUCTION—THE MORE WAYS WE TEACH, THE MORE STUDENTS WE REACH—THE MORE FURNITURE OPTIONS WE HAVE, THE MORE ACCOMMODATING WE WILL BE TO OUR STUDENTS,”

At Paragon, we offer both hard and soft seating options, as well as a kaleidoscope of color to help you outfit your classrooms and learning spaces as inclusively as possible. Schools can choose from among more than 60 colors for our High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) surfaces, as well as accent colors for desk and table legs and edge surfaces.

To learn more about our wide variety of color and fabric choices, call (800) 451-8546 or visit paragoninc.com.

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Collaborative learning involves students working together to solve a problem or complete a task. It’s an active learning strategy that has become quite common in today’s classrooms, and for good reason.


The ability to work well with others as part of a team is the skill that companies most desire among new employees, according to a survey of hiring managers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Collaborative learning helps students develop this critical workforce skill.

But even beyond preparing students for the workforce, research suggests that collaborative learning offers a number of important social and academic benefits.

For instance, as students are working collaboratively on an assignment, they must explain their thinking to others in their group, which helps deepen their own understanding of the topic. What’s more, students have an opportunity to learn from their peers and hear other perspectives that further advance their own knowledge. They learn to think critically about these various perspectives, and they tend to retain what they have learned longer than students who work individually. While the benefits of collaborative learning are clear, using this strategy in the classroom can be challenging.

Here are five keys to implementing collaborative learning successfully.

1. BE DELIBERATE IN FORMING STUDENT GROUPS

Allowing students to form their own groups can work well sometimes. But for the best results, teachers should carefully consider how best to arrange students so that groups contain a variety of perspectives.

If everybody thinks alike, there will be no diversity of thought to challenge participants or broaden their point of view. And if everyone performs at the same ability, then it will be harder for students to learn from each other.

In contrast, groups of students with a broad range of skills, interest and abilities can be transformational, because students who are more advanced in a particular skill or concept can help teach others. In the process, all students benefit from this interaction.

Here are some ideas for achieving a healthy balance when grouping students:

  • Ask students to rate their level of comfort or ability with the various skills involved in a project, such as research, writing, digital media creation or background knowledge of the topic—and then try to arrange groups that include “experts” in these different areas.
  • Ask students where they stand on a particular issue. Pair students with opposing points of view and have them create a voter’s guide on the topic, or otherwise explore the issue from all sides.
  • Give students a preliminary assessment. Based on the results, purposefully create groups or pairings with a mix of abilities.

2. SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

Make sure all students know what is expected of them, not just in terms of the final project outcome, but also in terms of the process they take to achieve it. For instance, students should understand how they will be evaluated for their contributions to the group, as well as what behaviors are required for successful collaboration.

In outlining a clear task or objective for group work, make sure everyone knows they will sink or swim together. This creates “positive interdependence,” in which the success of each group depends on the participation of all members—and on students helping each other as necessary.

Before putting students into groups, explain your expectations for behavior and the consequences for violating these rules. Stop any inappropriate behavior as soon as you notice it, and be sure to follow through on the consequences. If you have established clear rules for collaborative learning behavior, “then the odds of you having a positive classroom atmosphere are much greater,” says education writer Janelle Cox for TeachHub.

Here are some more tips for setting clear expectations of students:

  • Develop scoring rubrics for each project. Consider asking students for their feedback and including some of their ideas in your rubrics, so students are more invested in collaborative learning projects.
  • Evaluate students on both their contributions to the group as well as the final product.
  • Incorporate peer and self assessment at various points in the project. “This is a good way to check in on the assignment progress as well as the group dynamics,” says Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation.

3. WORK ON COLLABORATION AS A DISCRETE SKILL

Students cannot be expected to know instinctively how to work well with others. This is a skill that needs developing, like any other. And as you would do with any other skill, it’s important to teach the elements of successful collaboration explicitly before having students apply this skill on their own.

The interpersonal skills needed for effective collaboration include listening to others, respecting other people and their opinions, asking clarifying questions, communicating one’s own ideas clearly and concisely, trusting other members of the group, learning how to compromise and managing conflict. Students should know what each of these behaviors involves and how to practice it in their daily interactions.

“INSTEAD OF SEEING CONFLICT AS SOMETHING THAT YOU MUST IMMEDIATELY STEP IN THE MIDDLE OF AND PUT A STOP TO, SEE CONFLICT AS AN OPPORTUNITY”

Here are some ideas for developing these skills among students:

  • Use conflict as a teachable moment. “Instead of seeing conflict as something that you must immediately step in the middle of and put a stop to, see conflict as an opportunity,” says the Association of American Educators (AAE). Help students learn to mediate their own conflicts, providing guidance where necessary, but stopping short of imposing your own solution.
  • Model effective collaboration for your students. “Set a good example for collaboration by working with other teachers and faculty members often,” AAE says. “Talk about your planning sessions and your experiences working with other teachers, and allow (students) to experience the rich interdisciplinary results of such collaboration. This way, they will see both the how and the why of collaboration.”
  • Give students opportunities to build trust and rapport among their groups through icebreakers and team-building exercises.
  • Reflect with your students after collaborative projects. Spend time wrapping up the task by discussing not just the project itself, but how students worked together. Highlight both good and bad examples of the collaboration you saw, always being careful not to embarrass students.

4. HOLD ALL STUDENTS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR WORK

Some students might be inclined to take over for the rest of the group, while others might be content to let this happen. To ensure that every student is pulling his or her weight, it’s important to create an environment in which all students are held accountable for doing their fair share of work.

Here are some ways of doing this:

  • Have students establish ground rules for their group. Students can even create a contract for each member of the group to sign, with agreed-upon penalties for those who don’t fulfill their obligations.
  • Give students some time at the outset of a project to create a group work plan that divides up the responsibilities among members equally.
  • Assign roles to each student in a group. For example, if the task is to create a video, one student could be in charge of the script, another could be in charge of the set design, and a third could be in charge of props and costumes. If you try this tactic, just make sure you vary the roles for each student during the course of the school year, so students have a chance to experience multiple roles.
  • Assign work for students to complete on their own before bringing it to the group for discussion or further action.
  • Allow students to rate each other’s contributions. Consider these evaluations when assigning individual grades, but don’t give them too much weight in your assessment system. If you use this idea, make sure you clearly communicate how peer assessment will influence students’ grades.

5. DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET MESSY


Collaborative learning can be noisy and might appear somewhat chaotic at times, with students discussing, debating, sharing and creating in small groups. Teachers must learn to embrace this chaos, as it means students are engaged in active learning. Here are some suggestions to guide you.

  • Learn to give up some control. This can be hard for teachers who are used to having students sit quietly while they lecture. But teachers will find that when they give up some control over their classroom, they allow students to take charge of their own learning, which is ultimately what we want for our students—to be self-directed learners. And when teachers talk less, they have more time to listen, observe, and provide feedback to students.
  • Set up your classroom to encourage collaborative learning. For students to work together, they must be sitting together. Don’t be afraid to rearrange the furniture to support collaboration. Flexible classroom furnishings, such as desks and tables from Paragon that easily can be arranged into multiple configurations, allow you to create groupings of various sizes and compositions to suit different types of projects throughout the year.
  • Pay attention to transitions. Learning to give up some degree of control doesn’t mean ceding control of your classroom to students altogether. Your transitions in and out of collaborative learning time are important, because they signal to students when it’s OK to talk with their peers—and when they should be listening to you. Start collaborative lessons by explaining the task and what you’re looking to accomplish, then set students loose on the project. To bring the focus back to you, include a debriefing session at the end. And always make sure that students are following the rules for respectful collaboration while they are engaged in the project itself.

Collaborative learning takes time and effort to lead successfully. But when it’s done well, it provides invaluable learning experiences for students. With the advice contained in this guide, you should be well on your way to creating effective collaborative learning environments that transform classroom instruction.

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