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.

Breaking from ‘cells and bells’

Architects with the Cuningham Group collaborated with North Park staff to come up with the learning studio design. Teachers, the principal and architects sat down in the school to brainstorm.

North Park is on the front edge of an emerging trend, said John Pfluger, Cuningham Group design principal.

“A lot of people are finding us who want to change how schools look, feel and work. A lot of people are talking about it, but North Park was one of the first to actually do it,” Pfluger said. “North Park is clearly an early adopter and an inspiration.”

Pfluger says schools have been slow to rethink work spaces even in the face of new technology that doesn’t fit well into conventional classrooms.

“Public education is one of the most risk-averse industries in our country,” he said. “ … We call it the cells and bells approach. You’ve got the boxes lined up in a hallway. One teacher and 30 kids: whoever comes out alive after nine months wins. That works for 20 to 30 percent of our kids. It doesn’t work for the rest of us.”

The learning studios offer a variety of spaces for all types of learners and easily incorporates new technology, Pfluger said.

A new way to teach

Teachers in the learning studios praise them now but admit it took some learning on their part, too.

Second-grade teacher Jennifer Hauswirth said she was intrigued but apprehensive.

“It was very scary. I didn’t know how we would have 90 kids in one space,” she said.

But after her first year, she’s seen children thrive in a less restrictive environment, she said. Teachers don’t need to micromanage every student wiggle and movement for kids to learn.

“They are not thinking about being uncomfortable. They are now finding their spots where they are the most engaged,” Hauswirth said.

The freedom has actually decreased behavior problems, teachers say.

“The desirable behaviors have increased and the less desirable behaviors decreased as we allowed them to move during lessons,” said Hauswirth. “If they are moving, it doesn’t mean they are not listening.”

Desirae Gillis, who taught kindergarten last year, was so impressed with the learning studio that she asked to be moved there. She’s now teaching in the new third-grade learning studio. She said she likes the collaborative teaching model, which allows children to develop relationships with several teachers during the school year.

“They have a lot of adults who can help them be successful,” Gillis said.

A parent’s view

Naty Severson’s daughter Hannah was in the second-grade learning studio last year. She is now in the third-grade studio. Severson said she’s happy with the outcome so far. She said her daughter’s academic skills progressed appropriately in the new environment. Hannah’s social skills also flourished, something the family had not seen in conventional classroom settings.

“It looks very visually appealing. It’s more appealing than a traditional classroom,” Severson said.

Severson agrees school design has lagged behind, and she supports more classroom innovation even if change initially makes parents and teachers uncomfortable.

“I have a belief if we don’t change, we are going to get behind. I think it’s going to help our kids. It reflects a more modern office space for collaborative work,” she said.

Severson said conventional classrooms are about control, safety and comfort. “No one who ever did anything cool sought control, safety or comfort,” she said.

Measuring success

Cacek said that feedback from teachers and parents has been positive and that grades did not falter. However, the district will analyze standardized test scores over the next five years for a more objective assessment. They’re also speaking with university researchers interested in studying the learning studio.

The district has contracted with the nonprofit Amherst H. Wilder Foundation to evaluate growth and critical thinking, student engagement and overall community satisfaction.

This isn’t the first time schools have experimented with the open-classroom concept. Some schools across the country experimented with it in the 1970s but it largely fell out of fashion.

“I see this as completely different,” Pfluger said. “[In the 1970s], they didn’t do anything different. They just took the walls down.” Today’s learning studios are accompanied by changes in teaching methods and technology, said Pfluger.

“The major difference is the teacher preparation,” said Halabi, the district’s director of student services. “They really understand how to use the space, the technological tools, the furniture and all of the stuff geared toward the space.”