New "learning studios” replace conventional classrooms at Fridley school

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2013 - 3:13 PM

A Fridley elementary school says new open spaces bring benefits.

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Second-graders Aryana Cole, left, Tenagnework Agedie, center, and Jennifer Balboa found a spot to read at North Park Elementary School in Fridley. Each grade level learns in a large, open area with many options for seating and meeting.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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The bones of the American classroom haven’t changed much in the last century, bemoans North Park Elementary principal Jeff Cacek.

Rows of desks face a teacher’s desk. It’s all about: eyes forward, sit still, be quiet.

Few other spaces have lagged so far behind in design and innovation, Cacek says. Can you imagine going to a 1913 hospital, he asks? Why do we subject our children to antiquated and outmoded learning environments?

Cacek, his staff and a team of architects are now challenging that century-old model, starting with second and third grades.

Leaders at the school in the Columbia Heights School District have torn down walls of the conventional classrooms. They’ve stored away those old metal desks and the old “sit still, be quiet and learn” mind-set to create learning studios.

The students from each grade learn in one large, open space. That’s 94 second-graders, six teachers and three student teachers all in one learning studio. North Park created the second-grade learning studio, using a habitat theme, last school year. It’s been so successful that the school created a third-grade learning studio, with a continents theme, this year. There are 88 third-graders and nine teachers and student teachers in that studio at the Fridley school.

There are no student or teacher desks in the learning studios. Instead, there’s a variety of work spaces for kids to choose from.

There are traditional tables and chairs. There’s a “genius bar”: a taller table where kids can stand and participate. There are “hokki” stools, stationary ergonomic stools that allow for movement in all directions. And then there’s ample carpeted floor space, which is where most kids often choose to sit and learn. There are also smaller rooms on the periphery for quiet group work.

This is the future of the American classroom, Cacek said.

“We are taking down walls,” he says as he gives a tour. “The intention is to build 21st-century skills. If all a student can do when they graduate is be proficient on a math and reading test, then they are not going to be ready.”

The district spent about $100,000 to create the third-grade learning studio.

“The idea of taking a space and for very little cost opening it up and making it space that works for kids was really appealing to our school board,” said Nicole Halabi, district director of student services.

The four Cs

Cacek said the new work space better allows for the new four Cs in education: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. It fosters small group work and hands-on learning vs. a conventional classroom, designed to maintain quiet and control.

“Why do we have classrooms where we insist on silence? How much learning do we sacrifice for that silence?” Cacek said. “The noise level in the learning studio is higher, but it’s totally appropriate for what they’re doing.”

It also creates a collaborative teaching model. All the teachers work with all the children, often in smaller groups, at different times during the day.

The learning studio also helps teachers better integrate technology in the classroom, Cacek said. The second-grade classroom has 40 iPads, 15 laptops and 30 desktop computers. The third-grade classroom has 30 iPads and 25 laptops. Students can work ahead by watching lessons on computers and iPads and then work with teachers on those newly learned skills. It’s a learning concept called flipped instruction.

“We are very careful to not look at technology as the solution. It’s a tool just like a pad of paper and a pencil. It’s not a teacher,” Cacek said.

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