Learning labs

Posted by Meade Davis - 09 August, 2013

beforeWhere do you do your best learning?

When the 1st graders of Randolph School were posed this question last year, their answers may surprise you.

I like to learn anywhere that I can be alone and think.

Somewhere that is comfortable, like my room, or the grass.

I like to walk around the outside of my house and discover new bugs.

The most surprising revelation for the 1st grade teachers was that not one of our students said Randolph, school, their classroom, or even described a place that remotely resembled their classroom.

Over the past year, many conversations the Lower School teachers have had centered on technology and making tools more readily available to our students.  We knew that putting iPads in the hands of every student would create the kind of classroom we were longing for, one where the teacher becomes part of the conversation, rather than the only one talking.  We realized when we polled our students that before we could successfully implement these new technology tools, we would first have to address a more pressing issue: learning spaces.

tables togetherFor so long we have neglected our classroom furniture.  On any given day in a Lower School classroom at Randolph, we meet with our students, they work in groups, they work with partners, they research together, they research alone, they confirm and meet with the teacher, they confirm and meet with each other, they take quiet time to think about concepts, they reflect.

When this is your daily routine, guess what desks do?

They get in the way.

So, each day, the students would slowly shimmy their desks to the outer perimeter of the room and then after the students left, the teacher would make sure the desks were straight again, because when you are a teacher with desks, these are the kinds of things you worry about.

Think about the last time you really learned something as an adult. Think about the setting.  I doubt many of you are picturing yourself in a chair hovering over a hard wooden desk.  Why do we expect our students’ answers to be any different?

Even as I type this, I think it is important to note that I am lying on the sofa in my home, not sitting at my desk.  That is the beauty of being an adult though, right?  You have the freedom to learn, reflect, and discover in an environment in which you are comfortable.  Well, what if our students had this same freedom?

writing projectI briefly tested this idea last year for a particular writing project.  I told the students that they could complete the project anywhere in the room, work with classmates, or work alone.  Basically the only rule was that it had to be their best work and they should be proud to turn it in.

During this project, the students sat on the floor and the furniture acted as a partition between student groups throughout the room.  The results were the most diverse and insightful writing pieces I have ever received from a group of 1st graders.

chairsThe 1st grade teachers began researching furniture that would fit our students’ needs.  As we brainstormed, we determined that the furniture would need to be comfortable, welcoming, and perhaps most importantly, mobile.

With mobile furniture, we could give our students the freedom to set up the room to fit their needs for that particular moment, as well as foster their individual learning styles.  We also did not want to neglect our discussions of a mobile 1:1 classroom and we wanted to set up an environment that was prepared for this change.

The more we researched and developed this student-centered learning space, the more we all grew sick of the term “classroom.”  The word classroom is tired.   When I hear the word classroom, my inner child recalls that place I had to go, to memorize the things that adults said were important.  Instead of calling these newly designed spaces classrooms, the first grade teachers have decided to pilot them as “Learning Labs.”  Way cooler than that C-word, right?

tables up

After many conversations about our learning labs and lots of research, we found a company called Bretford.  What made us fall in love with Bretford was their futuristic approach to changing educational spaces.  Their furniture is practical, unique, and agile.

Administrators and the 1st grade team met with a Bretford representative and told him about our wants and needs.  They took our classroom measurements and produced, based on our proposal, a floor plan.  During this developmental phase I was fortunate enough to attend the iPad Summit in Atlanta and meet a fellow educator named Don Orth.

classroom reset

Don spoke of how his school, Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, California, along with Bretford, developed an iLab to replace their traditional computer lab.  The idea of this lab was mobility, student freedom, a place where students wanted to learn.  It was reaffirming to me to see how much this school’s conversations and development mirrored ours, and I came back to Randolph so excited to share this school’s successful implementation of a mobile classroom.


This year Dr. Hulsey challenged the staff to cogitate the question: How do we know our students are learning?  As I brood over this, my mind races back to the question that sparked the buzz surrounding learning spaces in the Lower School.  As we pilot the learning labs, it is our hope that by the end of this year, when we ask our students:  Where do you do your best learning?,  the answer will be obvious.

Topics: 1st grade, Academics, learning labs, Lower School, mobile classroom, My favorite place, professional development, teachers, writing

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