Turning schools into labs for learning!


Shakti Jhala
Senior Strategist and Training Coordinator at Schoogle (A TGES initiative), Mumbai

Classroom designs have moved on from utility-based rooms to purpose-based learning spaces. A rigid environment seldom facilities fluid thinking! A grey-tone room is more suited for practical space, but an artistic area may be better off with vibrant colours and blank areas; an almost rustic incomplete spacing waiting to be filled by its occupant’s imagination. After all, what is a classroom, if not a space for creativity and new ideas?

If you were to take pictures of how classrooms looked (in terms of their orientation) in the 1960s or 1970s and compare them to what classrooms look like in most schools today, it would be a tough to bring out valuable differences. This is because the purpose of the classroom half a century ago was knowledge transmission and with the change in the purpose of learning, the design of a classroom has not gone much change. However, in a collaborative, creative, and critical thinking classroom this model would not facilitate effective learning.

What is a Classroom?

Today, the concept of a ‘Class-Room’ is as outdated as a pager. Learning Spaces are moving out of the four walls and into different, purposefully set-up areas, depending on the objective, audience and scale of learning. ‘Flipped Classrooms’, have moved knowledge gathering at home, leaving valuable school time for higher order skill development (Bloom’s Taxonomy). ‘AltSchools’ in NY, USA have turned schools into labs, where the learners are independent to learn at a pace decided by them. They are no longer compartmentalized like products in a supermarket. In Japan, Fuji Kindergarten’s circular structure facilitates learning about more than just subjects. Children investigate their surroundings and they learn to perform many necessary activities through repetition, trial and error and enquiry. ‘Flexible Classrooms’ allow the teacher and students to change its arrangement and design easily to reduce any time leakage or commotion. Several Indian schools are transforming their classrooms from one-dimensional spaces to collaborative learning spaces where students sit in clusters rather than in rows and columns (like numbers on an Excel sheet). The arrangement facilitates students to have discussions more effectively in a round-table set-up. The teacher is provided moving space to supervise the activity and provide guidance only if and when necessary.

If we look into schools with substantial resources, classrooms are turning highly digitized. With every student having a personal learning device (Tablets/Laptops) and access to Blended Learning Material in the form of videos, simulations, and games, learning becomes individualized. The advancements in VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) classrooms, a designated room could soon become obsolete. Teachers and students would be able to use their imagination to create their own classrooms just the way they would want to. It could soon be possible for History teacher to take the students on the footsteps of Alexander from Macedonia to the Himalayas, literally, using AR.

Classrooms or Learning Spaces need to represent the times they are set in. Now is the time for evolution and adaption. Multiscreen rooms, movable and changeable boards, flexible furniture and readily available digital support are the current trends in Classroom Designs today.

Is your Classroom bio-friendly?

However, there is one flipside to a digital classroom. Sometimes we become disconnected from the natural environment in our effort to digitize everything. Here is the need to keep our roots grounded and create bio-friendly eco classrooms. Bio-friendly classrooms are not merely having a few plants as a decorative. Those are mere embellishments. Let us consider a classroom from a school around us. In many cases, the room is air-conditioned. It has, either plastic or metal chairs with small wooden or plastic desks. A board (white, green or black) with marker pens and/or colourful chalk. The other usual suspects would be adequate tube-lights, some connections ports, sliding windows, a glass/wooden door, soft boards all around. The stationery material would occupy the space in a corner along with a storage space (cupboard/s, shelves, etc.).Ask yourself, is this a bio-friendly classroom? When children are taught about the environment and how we can reduce the degradation and the use the 3Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle, what would you tell them about the room they are studying in? Remember, students don’t learn what we say, they learn what we do.

Various schools around the world are going the bio-friendly way, like the Green School in Bali, Indonesia. This bamboo-made school (sustainably harvested bamboo, obviously) runs on clean energy using a hydro-powered generator and a solar panel. The Makoko Floating School uses 256 recycled plastic barrels for buoyancy as its triangular shape using bamboo and wood helps to keep it steady in high winds.

The question that’s generally asked – But aren’t bio-friendly schools expensive? Wouldn’t it cost to grow and maintain plants or trees in a classroom? Well, in the long run, it proves a cheaper option and when we consider our contribution to the eco-system, it’s priceless.

Schools can start small; separating waste in to recyclable, bio-degradable or non-recyclable material. Using a better ventilation system to maintain heating and cooling, recycling water used in school, conducting regular environmental audits supported by the students and ‘walking the talk’ when it comes to environmental awareness.

Safety first, or is it?

Classroom designs must not be just beautiful or modern. They should adhere to basic standards of safety as well. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that a student could get hurt from almost anything. That is why the structure of a classroom and everything inside it comply with the set standards of safety. Basic design factors would include adequate entry and exit points in case of emergencies along. The design must accommodate movement and access. Use of natural light and air must be made as much as possible. Avoiding locked doors and easy access to communication also adds to the safety meter. Every member of the teaching and non-teaching staff should be trained on first-aid and fire-safety, along with some students, if not all. Safety Marshals are often appointed in schools for this very same purpose, either grade-wise or floor-wise, whichever is applicable and appropriate. Create a safety checklist, something like this?

1. Is the classroom door working properly?

2. Is the floor safe to walk around?

3. Are the chairs and benches safe to sit? Are they maintained well?

4. Is/are the Safety Marshal present?

5. Is the emergency route map placed inside the class and easily visible?

6. Has the teacher received her Safety training/Refresher within the last 6 months?

7. Are all the connecting sockets in the classroom safe and working?

8. Was the air-conditioner serviced within the last 6 months?

9. Is the air smelling funny/foul?

10. Am I aware of my role in case of an emergency?

11. Are there any sharp/dangerous items in the room? Is the teacher aware of them?

If, a teacher and a student are able to answer these questions correctly, then the classroom is a ‘Safe Classroom.’

To AC or not to AC

Learning takes place best in a comfortable environment for the student. Student comfort is often measured by the facilities provided by the school like adequate lighting, ample classroom space, comfortable seating and lastly, air-conditioning. But do we really need an air-conditioned classroom? A cold temperature will use the body’s energy to warm up. The mind will start thinking about the lack of heat, rather than concentrate on what is being discussed in the class. In warmer climates, and especially during hot summers, the body uses the same energy to maintain the temperature to avoid heat exertion. The body loses energy in hot climates as well and learning capacity reduces. Both points support the need to have a comfortable temperature to keep the body’s energy focused on learning.

So, is an air-conditioner the most apt solution? In extreme climatic zones, one would have to say, yes. But most of the world’s population does not live in extreme climatic zones. If schools can create a well-designed ventilation system, use appropriate building material to control the room temperature and provide adequate hydration and sanitation facilities, the air-conditioner would be used only when required. Even when installed, the air-conditioner must be timely serviced and maintained to avoid any mishaps or accidents. Its operation should be handled only by the teacher in class. The facilities manager must check the cooling vents regular to see if there is no form of infestation that lead to severe health concerns for all those who breathe that air.

Moving forward

Classroom designs have moved on from utility-based rooms to purpose-based learning spaces. The ‘why’ of the space determines the ‘what’ of it – its look, its material, its structure, its colours, and its aesthetics. A collaborative classroom is impossible in a space where benches and tables are nailed to the floor. A rigid environment seldom facilities fluid thinking. A grey-tone room is more suited for practical space, but an artistic area may be better off with vibrant colours and blank areas; an almost rustic incomplete spacing waiting to be filled by its occupant’s imagination. After all, what is a classroom, if not a space for creativity and new ideas?

Shakti JhalaShakti Jhala is Senior Strategist and Training Coordinator at Schoogle (A TGES initiative). He has also worked with CurrEQlum as Head – Training and Delivery – Life Skills (K-12) Curriculum and Training and Curriculum Developer at Kangaroo Kids Education Ltd. He has also worked with Podar Educatiion Network Creative as Curriculum Developer and PPMS India Insurance.