Breaking the Mold

Breaking the Mold
Three high school students sit at a table interacting with each other and an iPad.

Preparing our students for the future requires a bold transformation to both the learning model and the student environment. 

Kurt Carlson does not spend much time at the front of his North Junior High classroom lecturing students. His eighth-graders mostly work in small groups to build prototypes, solve problems, and create products. His design class is part of the junior high International Baccalaureate curriculum. It’s an inquiry based class where students analyze problems and think critically.

The space needed to support this learning environment is not rows of desks that face the front of the room. That type of traditional space would not create the conditions for the high levels of collaboration his class requires. Instead, students use tables and chairs that can be easily reconfigured into different learning arrangements. Almost every inch of space is used and has a purpose. Workspaces and storage units line the walls, and smart technology lets students show their work and demonstrate mastery of concepts. Even the hallway outside the space is used, so much so that windows were added so teachers could see into the hallway, where the 3D printers are located.

“If we are serious about collaboration, and an inquiry-based learning style, these are the types of spaces students need to be able to work and learn,” said Carlson.

Hopkins Public Schools is now in year two of its Vision 2031 strategic plan, which sets out a bold path for innovation and transformative change. As part of the strategy to transform school, Hopkins is deeply exploring the relationship between learning and physical space with a goal of having more classrooms look like a version of Carlson’s classroom — an environment that is flexible and responsive to the needs of students. Most schools in the United States, including Hopkins, were built to support a model of learning from the early 20th century designed to prepare students for industrial work. Hopkins is creating a new model that will prepare students for the future.  

Flexible furniture including a chair, a table and a couch.

Opportunities provided by the 2017 bond referendum

The foundation for some of this work was created in 2017 when a bond referendum funded the reconfiguration of technology labs, including Carlson’s classroom, at both junior highs to better meet the needs of the IB Middle Years Programme. The bond created several flexible learning spaces at Hopkins High School and both junior highs. These spaces offer an opportunity to intentionally deviate from traditional classrooms, supporting a more fluid style of teaching and learning. 

This fall, the flexible learning spaces at North Junior High and West Junior High opened to students. The spaces, which are about as large as a media center, contain a mixture of individual and collaborative areas, flexible furniture, and smart technology. They are a big hit with students who appreciate having access to space that can simultaneously accommodate group and individual work. With multiple seating arrangements, students feel comfortable, better focused, and encouraged to fully participate in class.

“Most people are really shy, so they don’t speak up in class, but here you are in smaller groups, so you can ask more questions,” said Miski Isse, a ninth-grade student at West Junior High.

Teachers are able to reserve the space for guest speakers, group projects, team building, and even their own professional development. The potential is just beginning to be realized. West Junior High social studies teacher Kim Campbell is focused on using the flexible spaces to further adapt her curriculum to a more student-centered experience.

“We know that education is not working for all, and I want my students to be able to explore their passions and to delve into topics they are passionate about,” she said.

Campbell uses the flexible learning spaces when she needs her students to dig in and tackle a problem. Each room is large enough where students can spread out and approach their work in a variety of ways. And although students enjoy the freedom the space allows, Campbell is quick to recognize that her students need structure and coaching. She is intentional about helping them master critical soft skills like effective collaboration.

“We take for granted that kids know how to work in groups,” she said. “We need to do pre-teaching about how to work in groups. It’s not an easy skill.”

Two students working on school work at desks surrounded by partitions.

Space and learning must work together

Changing space alone will not get Hopkins the world-class results it desires — space must be aligned to a transformed learning model. Hopkins is currently exploring new ways to deliver teaching systemwide by developing a new learning framework. Without a shift to how curriculum is delivered, there is a real risk that any new spaces created will be used in traditional ways.

“You can’t just have a transformed space or a transformed learning framework — you have to have both,” said Ann Ertl, assistant director of Innovation, Design and Learning.

To align the concepts, the Innovation, Design and Learning team at Hopkins is developing a learning framework that is grounded in equity and focused on inquiry. The goal is to shift the traditional roles of both the teacher and the student by centering students as co-creators of their education and teachers as facilitators and guides in those experiences. 

Hopkins has also commissioned Unesco and Fielding Nair International in a facility study to inform how the District could further encode strategic shifts into the DNA of all Hopkins classrooms. This exploration not only includes the physical space but also how they could work hand-in-hand with a new learning framework that supports the goals of Vision 2031.

Developing a sense of community

In every building throughout Hopkins, there are countless examples of how teachers are shifting both their mindsets and their space to create student-centered environments. These shifts are happening both in the classroom as well as in communal spaces.

At Hopkins High School, for example, the media center has made a significant philosophical change. Instead of being a quiet place where students go to study alone, media specialist Carol Tracy is creating a student-centered space that focuses on building community. She wants the media center to be a place where students feel welcome, seen, heard, and most importantly connected to school.

“We’re trying to make connections with as many kids as possible,” said Tracy. “One person can make a student feel better about their day.”

Tracy’s mindset is grounded in the very real belief that students who feel connected to school will do better in school. On average, 150 students pass through the media center every day, but she wants to increase this number. Using a similar model to the flexible spaces, Tracy has built different types of learning environments throughout the media center, ranging from active to quiet. She plays relaxing, non-lyrical music and leverages her screens to showcase calming imagery like puppy webcams or aquariums. Tables throughout the media center feature puzzles or games like Connect 4 and Scrabble to encourage community, conversation, and learning.

“The media center is both a calm and busy place for students. Kids are really comfortable here. There needs to be a space like this in school where kids can go and just be,” she said.