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Flexible learning environments give students more control and choice in their education

Flexible learning environments give students more control and choice in their education

The sun sets over West Willow Elementary school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

The sun sets over West Willow Elementary school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

The sun sets over West Willow Elementary school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids Community Schools District President David Tominsky, and West Willow student Cruz Lozano cut ribbons to celebrate the grand opening at the school. The ceremony took place at West Willow Elementary in Cedar Rapids. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Brynn Determan (10 years old), a West Willow student, leads a tour at the school’s newly constructed school on Tuesday, December 21, 2021 at West Willow Elementary, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Brynn Determan, 10, a West Willow student, leads a tour at the school’s newly constructed school on Tuesday, December 21, 2021 at West Willow Elementary, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Schools districts began to look at ways to revise their traditional desk-in-row classrooms, which prevented students from learning best by collaborating.

However, the pandemic which drove hundreds of students from March 2020 to June 2021 to learn remotely is only one example of how districts are trying to improve their understanding of what makes students succeed. Flexible furniture and engineering and math labs, project-based learning, outdoor learning spaces, and science, technology and engineering labs are all helping educators and students in Eastern Iowa schools.

Lynn Kleinmeyer is a Grant Wood Area Education Agency digital-learning consultant. She stated that “any classroom that has re-examined its desk in rows approach towards a classroom environment, is moving forward with the mentality behind flexible learning space design.”

Kleinmeyer said that the pandemic provided school districts with an opportunity to reflect on how their learning environments are supporting students’ needs. He also highlighted the immense impact that physical environments can have upon education.

Kleinmeyer stated that students who were learning at home during the pandemic were able to make better choices about their learning environment than if they were in a classroom.

Kleinmeyer explained that they were able to try out different environments and find the best ones for them, including sitting on a sofa, on the floor, or gathered around a table.

This experience can be replicated by creating adaptive spaces that adapt to the needs of our learners.

Many students who had attended school remotely during the pandemic from March 2020 to Juni 2021 returned in-person this fall in search of educational environments that better suited their learning needs.

Kleinmeyer stated, “That’s the hallmark of many of these redesigned learning areas. They are designed to allow individuals to concentrate on their needs with quiet, comfortable places to work independently.

Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar and Linn-Mar schools opened new schools over the past two decades. These modern learning spaces combine flexible furniture, mobile devices and large flat screen displays to optimize learning.

In 20 years, West Willow Elementary School became the first school to open in Cedar Rapids Community Schools District. The first day of school was attended to by students on Aug. 23, although construction had not been completed due to delays caused by the pandemic.

The district held an open house and ribbon cutting earlier this month. Students led community members on a tour through their school.

Cedar Rapids Community School District plans to construct 10 new elementary schools, and renovate three others over the next 15-20 years. They are also beginning to plan their facilities master plan for secondary school buildings.

A brand new sixth- and fifth-grade school is being built in the College Community Schools District. It will include two gyms and art, music, and media centers.

Vicki Hyland, OPN Architects’ accredited learning environment planner, says the pandemic forced schools into creating customized learning environments. Learning is not about sitting in rows in a class and memorizing the state capitals.

Hyland is one the three Iowa learning environment planners who are accredited and has worked on many school building projects in Eastern Iowa.

Hyland stated that toddlers don’t grab a book and then sit at a desk. They can lie on a couch, on the ground, or on a pillow.

It creates an environment where their brain engages, and they don’t think about how rigid the desk looks.

Neighborhood learning through personalized learning

Students are assigned to a school in each of these new schools. A pod is a grouping of classrooms with a common area where students can gather or do groupwork to make a large school feel smaller.

Kleinmeyer stated that this can make a school with 1,200 students feel less overwhelming.

She said that you are more than a number when you are part of a close-knit learning community.

These schools offer small-group collaboration classrooms. During the height of the pandemic in 2020-21, many of these spaces were not able to be used for their intended purposes.

Eric Townsley, information technology manager for College Community schools, said that schools were still trying to place students six feet apart to limit the spread COVID-19.

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These spaces are being used a lot this year as schools encourage collaboration as part of students’ social-emotional learning. Adam Kurth, Iowa City schools information tech director, said.

He said that peer-to-peer interactions were crucial because so many students learned virtually last year.

Eliminating learning obstacles

Iowa City and College Community schools have voice lift technology. This technology allows teachers to speak louder through a microphone and sound system.

Kurth stated that although this project, which also included the addition of interactive projectors to classrooms in Iowa City schools, was started three years ago, it has proven useful during the pandemic.

Voice lift technology may be particularly important if a teacher has to use it, or if they choose to wear a mask that might muffle their voice to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Kurth said that it is crucial to support student collaboration, perhaps in the form physical space design. Our technology must provide a safe environment for students, not create barriers to learning.

A backbone for remote education

These buildings, which are modernized with technology, can also be used as a backbone for students who want to learn remotely.

Students log in online to complete their schoolwork, instead of writing assignments on paper. Online learning is possible for students who are unable or unable attend school in person.

Many school districts worked one-to-one with technology during the pandemic. Every student was given a tablet or laptop to take home. Kurth said that 600 students in Iowa City Community Schools District are still learning from home, which reinforces the importance internet access for every child.

Kurth also learned that students need to have access to the curriculum even after the pandemic. He said that if a student is interested digital art, they should have access to Adobe products through the school district, regardless of whether they are enrolled at a class that uses this technology.

We want to promote lifelong, continuous learning. Kurth explained that we cannot drop summers.

Kurth said that students can now keep their devices during the summer, and have access software and learning platforms.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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