21st Century Learning Environments

Craig Cantlie, Elementary Executive Principal at GEMS Dubai American Academy, explains the vision driving the school’s recent classroom redesign

Many people see innovation as the ed-tech tools that are used in schools and classrooms, but that is just one component of it. As a school that values innovation, future-focused fluencies and inquiry-based learning, GEMS Dubai American Academy (DAA) is teaching in a manner that is changing the way students think – but what we hadn’t changed until now is where that thinking takes place.

The power of environment is well known in education and recognised by progressive companies such as Amazon and Google. A number of years ago, ‘breakout areas’ in schools were designed to be collaborative spaces where students could think critically and communicate with each other. Libraries became ‘learning commons’ where spaces were created to provide students with more choice and voice as to where they learn best.

My question has always been, why would we reinvent these spaces and not the classroom where most student learning takes place? Why, in a world that has changed so much, are our students still learning in environments that are really no different to the classrooms our teachers once sat in? With these questions in mind, we began to move forward in the rethinking of learning spaces that better reflect the world of work and foster aptitudes and skills our students will need in the future.

New learning ecosystems

As a result, each of our classrooms in Elementary is now a learning ecosystem where students and teachers are able to move to spaces that best fit their needs throughout the day. There are four main areas in each classroom that meet the daily learning needs of our students:

  1. The watchtower: This is a tall table in the classroom. For those students who like to oversee their surroundings, it is the perfect spot for learning. Students who also feel the need to move as they work find the watchtower to be a successful spot for them while they stand and learn.
  2. The campfire: This area is designated for ‘sharing knowledge’. It is an area with fixed furniture designed for people to come together in conversation. It is perfect for whole class learning and mini lessons with students.
  3. The watering hole: This area is much like the campfire but smaller and more flexible in that seating can be brought together for an impromptu sharing of learning.
  4. The office: This is a space for students to go when they would like to learn on their own, or they need some alone time during the day. Many students find it an excellent space to focus.

Our classroom micro-environments provide options for students as they undertake their daily learning. Beyond these, we have also created classroom spaces where purposeful posting on the walls is valued. Looking at what we put up in the classroom and asking why it’s there, ensures that our classroom walls are positively impacting student learning.

Finally, we included a ‘lamps and plants’ component to our redesign. We are very fortunate to have great natural light in our school, so we added soft lighting into the classrooms to provide our students with a calm learning environment. We also brought the outside in and provided every classroom with a few plants for their different micro-environments.

Switching it up

The new spaces have been very well received by staff and students. There is more room for movement, increased student ownership and students show pride in their space and a greater sense of calm and focus. And as the class is a shared space, we as administrators love that when we go into classrooms, we have trouble at first locating the teachers, as they tend to be connecting with students within the spaces rather than sticking to ‘their space’ at the teacher desk – which we no longer have.

The redesign has been a huge change for our staff, who have been learning right alongside the students in how to live and learn in these new learning ecosystems. We still have a few items to come and are always thinking of how we can make improvements, so even though we have redesigned and furnished all our classrooms, just like the learning, it continues to be a process.

Driving the transformation

DAA formed a committee of teachers who were interested in looking at their classrooms differently – teachers who were willing to try something new. The committee asked the following key questions:

  1. What spaces would foster the learning being implemented in our school?
  2. What spaces do we think students would like?
  3. What would inspire us as educators?

Committee members were asked to teach in the school library and DAA’s staff Collaboration Hub, which are designed with micro-environments in mind. Students and teachers then provided feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

Next was a visit to a workplace that reflected the variety of classrooms DAA was looking to create. At Office Inspirations, the team was able to experience and understand the purpose of different furniture and environments, allowing them to draw up a plan that included two long-term pilot classrooms and a system for collecting feedback.

Finally, a proposal to redesign all 52 of DAA’s classrooms was put forward and with the help of Office Inspirations and Natural Pod, the school successfully opened the 2019-20 school year with brand new learning environments for students.

About The Author

Craig Cantlie is the Executive Principal of the Elementary School at GEMS Dubai American Academy.

Prior to joining DAA, Craig spent four years as the principal of Caulfeild iDEC (inquiry-based digitally enhanced community), a highly regarded K-7 elementary school in the highest performing school district in Canada. During this time the school team was nominated for the Cmolik Prize for the Enhancement of Public Education based on the team’s work developing a Program of Inquiry based on Future Fluencies. This involved completely redesigning learning spaces across the school to reflect approaches to modern learning. Throughout his 19 years as an educator, Craig has strongly valued inquiry-based learning, collaboration, innovation, the pursuit of each child’s personal excellence and the capacity building of educators. Craig spent five years as the licensee and curator of TEDxWestVancouverED, an event designed to inspire educator ideas and practices.