Classroom design and layout is a key component of how administrators and teachers at the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey are moving to a more learner-centered mode of education.
“You have to start somewhere, and many of our staff have focused on reimagining the classroom space,” says Peter James, assistant director of technology at West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. “The goal is to give students choice in where and how they engage learning in the classroom. We are working with staff to take this deeper than the surface and work on the implementation of class routines and structures that honor student voice and choice.”
In certain classrooms, educators have added chairs that roll, collaboration tables, and technology that allows students and educators to log into display screens from anywhere in the classroom.
Rick Cave, director of technology for the district, says redesigning certain classroom spaces has also allowed teachers to explore new pedagogy.
“Our classrooms are designed very traditionally, so for those teachers who want to do a more project-based, group-based, and student centered-based learning, they actually have barriers in the layout of the classroom,” Cave says. However, these new classrooms are designed to eliminate those barriers.
“Redesigning the classroom space around student needs and empowering students to control their learning is invigorating and exciting for teachers,” James says.
Redesigning class around learner-centered education
Fostering more learner-centered teaching has long been a goal of leaders in the West Windsor-Plainsboro district. After the pandemic hit, Cave and others began taking a closer look at steps they could take to encourage more learner-centered activity and found surprising trends among their classes.
“We recognized that at our elementary classrooms we had far more learner-centered activity going on than in our upper-level classrooms,” Cave says. “We saw that we had first-graders who had more voice and choice in their learning than the high school kids did.”
The district built on a pilot program involving select elementary school teachers who were looking to explore more learner-centered options. Instead of starting with the technology and how it could be used in the classroom, Cave says technology and instructional team members met with the educators and asked, “What are you trying to do in your class?”
“We talked about their instructional needs,” Cave says.
Out of these conversations a desire for better physical class design emerged as teachers wanted to move about the classroom more freely. “Technology had kind of locked them into the front of the room,” Cave says. “The projector was there. The cables are plugged in, your laptop was there. If you had a smart board, that’s where you had to go.”
So they started by revamping the wireless technology in the classroom, using Apple TV to allow remote playing of video, slides, and more. “We gave the ability to the teacher to basically teach from anywhere in the room,” Cave says. “But we also gave the same technology to kids.”
The district recently expanded that program, offering all teachers the opportunity to explore ways to make their teaching spaces and approach more learner-centered. More than three dozen teachers are participating.
These teachers have surveyed their students and are collaborating with them to re-envision the class layout as well as how instruction is delivered. Teachers are beginning to explore project-based learning and flipped classrooms now that they have the technology tools and classroom spaces to support these modes of teaching, Cave says.
Tips for fostering learner-centered education
In addition to reinvigorating teachers, James says redesigning the classroom and instruction to be more student-centered has numerous advantages. “Releasing control to the students for learning frees staff to focus on the cultivation of relationships that will inspire learning,” he says. “The focus becomes the environment and the feeling of the class, and this allows students to personally connect to school.”
For district leaders interested in fostering more learner-centered opportunities at their schools, it’s all about practicing what you teach, James says.
“Establish the parameters in which the teachers can lead the classroom redesign and let them experience what student-centered is by being the center of this process,” he says. “Empower staff to work with students through the process and ensure that we listen and act on the ideas of students and staff. School leaders must provide opportunities for staff that we are asking them to provide for our students.”