If utilization of various technologies, flexible seating, student/teacher collaboration

If I were to tell you to close your eyes and picture what a high school or middle school classroom looked like, I am sure most of you would come up with the same image. Rows of small desks all facing a large desk in front of a whiteboard. Students with books, notebooks, computers or otherwise listening to a teacher standing in front of the room. Complete silence, with the exception of a few whispers of students, the rustling of papers and the clicking of keys on a keyboard. This teacher centered approach is what we have established as the educational norm for decades, but what kind of learning takes place in these classrooms? What kind of forward thinking students truly succeed to their fullest potential when they are trapped in a room that hasn’t changed its form or function in over a century? More importantly, how can we change this outdated norm? By creating an innovative learning environment through the utilization of various technologies, flexible seating, student/teacher collaboration and effective pedagogy, secondary educators cannot only create student centered learning spaces that are relevant for today’s learners, but will allow for adaptation that moves seamlessly with the changes in education and in society for years to come. As is seen with many of the changes in education, there is an abundance of resistance to changing our learning environments from a traditional setting to one that implements more contemporary methods. Many parents and teachers alike can get stuck in a fixed mindset of, “it worked for me, so it should work for my students/children.” What is not considered when this question is posed is how drastically the world has changed since those that pose this question were students themselves, as well as how much it will continue to change as our students become adults. Most of the students in our classroom are technology natives; they did not see the emergence of the world wide web, social media, computer sciences or handheld technologies. They were born into a world where these things are at their fingertips, and most have learned how to use them from a young age. They know nothing but a society in which they can get news and information in real time, some of which is highly uninformed and not fact based. They  can reach out to others across the globe at any time of the day, anywhere they wish to. They learn differently because their minds are wired differently and have been raised with experiences that no one that came before Generation Z can fathom. Just as we differentiate our instruction for students with different learning abilities, we should have the flexibility and ingenuity to change and mold to what today’s learners need in order to consistently grow. The change to a more innovative learning environment can be a tricky situation for a variety of reasons, one of the most prevalent being a lack of adequate funding. Without funding, many teachers that wish to adapt their learning spaces for this new generation of learners can experience a variety of roadblocks. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2015, districts across the United States spent an average of $11,392 per student (2017). While this number may seem large, we must keep in consideration that this dollar amount reflects a large range of services that are provided for students. This number includes staff salaries and benefits, transportation, nutrition programs, construction and equipment, debt repayment and other necessities that are essential to the upkeep of a school building. When we consider that the average student device can cost anywhere from $100 to $400 and must be replaced every three to four years, the grand total of these expenses can add up expeditiously  and become difficult to implement when other necessities are taken into consideration. Many school districts and classrooms that look to provide devices for each student, as well as other elements, technology based or otherwise, that can be implemented in order to develop an innovative learning environment, must look for additional funding such as grants, student fees, and crowdfunding to make this ideal a reality. While the resistance to changing classrooms into more innovative learning environments is abundant, the evidence that supports the benefits of making this change are overwhelmingly in favor of student achievement. On average, students perform 12% higher in classrooms utilizing one-to-one technology programs, compared to traditional non-technology based classroom settings according to research conducted by Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami and Schmid (2011). With advances in technology and a greater understanding of how pedagogy affects the effectiveness of the utilization of these tools, we can assume that this number will only continue to rise in years to come. This increase in achievement is subject to the proper implementation, including teacher beliefs and readiness in regarding technology use. According to Inan and Lowther (2010), beliefs are defined as “teachers’ perception of laptops’ influence on student learning and achievement and impact on classroom instruction and learning activities” and readiness as “teachers’ perception of their capabilities and skills required to integrate laptops into classroom instruction.” In this study, they also concluded that there is a greater positive correlation between a teacher’s beliefs towards technology integration than their readiness. This shows that it is essential for teachers to believe and to buy into the idea that technology usage is going to benefit students positively. While technology is a major part of creating a learning environment that is fresh and relevant in the modern day, there are other aspects of an innovative learning environment that have proven to be beneficial to student learning. One major trend in modern classrooms is the utilization of flexible seating. Flexible seating can be achieved in a variety of ways, but it will often transform the look of the classroom into more of that of a college dorm room or coffee shop. Teachers can bring in comfortable seating options such as couches, chairs, bean bags or pillows for students that prefer to sit down or be on the floor while they work. Other elements that can be included are desks that allow students to stand while they work, rocking or bouncing chairs for kinesthetically motivated students and some traditional seating for students that have found they work best seated at a table or desk. These rooms also include spaces that students can be comfortable working independently, as well as groupings of seats for when students are working collaboratively as a team. Giving students the choice to find a place where they are comfortable and can do their best work is the end goal of any flexible or non-traditional seating arrangement and the utilization of this seating strategy gives way to the creation of a more student centered, collaborative learning environment. By doing away with structured rows of desks facing the front of the room, the urge to provide direct instruction decreases and gives way to students directing their own learning. Not only does a flexible seating classroom give way to more student centered learning, but it also allows for a more collaborative classroom overall. By allowing a more fluid seating arrangement in comparison to a fixed, assigned seating arrangement, students are welcomed to build their knowledge and expertise of a subject by interacting with others to construct their learning (Everston & Neal, 2006). This gives students and teachers the ability to collaborate one on one or in small groups, which can create learning that is more meaningful and impactful for each individual student. This collaboration also gives students the opportunity to develop soft skills, including interpersonal skills, problem solving and time management, that are essential for secondary students to develop before entering the workplace. By implementing a switch as simple as how students are sitting, we can begin a domino effect that gives students the opportunities they need to become lifelong learners and effective communicators. The implementation of innovative learning environments not only positively impact student achievement, but have been seen to better fulfill the psychological needs and enhance motivation of students at the secondary level. In a study performed by Rob L. Martens, Karin Smit and Cornelis J. de Brabander, student’s three basic psychological needs, including perceived confidence, autonomy and relatedness, were observed in traditional teacher centered classrooms against a more innovative student centered classroom (2014). It was found that in the innovative, student centered classroom all three of these psychological needs were positively impacted in comparison to a traditional classroom setting. Not only were the psychological needs of students fulfilled to a greater degree, but the motivation of students to attend school. Absenteeism is the greatest indicator of school dropout, and by creating an environment in which students enjoy and want to attend school can lessen the number of absent days for students. This study proved that students were absent fewer days in a student centered, collaborative classroom, and therefore less likely to dropout of school in the future. It can be assumed that moving a classroom from a more traditional setting to that of one implementing elements of innovation can increase student motivation at a secondary level and increase graduation rates.These two elements, flexible seating and technology, are two incredibly important aspects of the creation of an innovative classroom and work best when implemented hand in hand. Technology must act as a catalyst for pedagogical change, and instead of simply easing technology into the existing, traditional classroom, it may be easier for this transformation to begin in a non-traditional, flexible setting. “New technologies in these traditional spaces have a tendency to sustain and reinforce existing pedagogical practices.” (Fisher, 2010; Lippman, 2010; Richards, 2006) This being said, there has been very little research conducted in regards to the connection between the physical attributes of a classroom and a transformative approach to the use of technology, especially at the secondary level. The few studies that have been done at both the secondary and primary level, have shown results that are synonymous in that the physical learning space does indeed affect pedagogy in technology enhanced learning environments. This intertwinement of technology and the elimination of the traditional learning space design has the potential to create a change in pedagogical thinking that truly transforms the learning process. Go ahead and return to thinking about most secondary classrooms you have experienced as a student or an educator. What is front and center? What is the focal point for all students within the classroom? I can assume that most of you thought of a white board or a blackboard, containing exact, word-perfect anecdotes from the unquestioned fountain of all knowledge in the classroom, the teacher. It can be said that some technologies that have gained popularity in the past do nothing but mimic the elements of such a classroom, utilizing an interactive whiteboard as nothing more than an expensive chalkboard or utilizing a laptop as an expensive pen and paper to take notes on. What would happen to these and other technological elements if that focal point of a whiteboard was eliminated? What innovation could happen in our teaching and learning if the unimodal norm of a teacher centric classroom was challenged? How could educators take their technology usage from merely enhancing their classrooms to completely transforming them? In a study conducted by Kenn Fisher (2016), it was found that by moving a classroom from a typical general learning area to a Place of Discovery (POD), that utilized multiple focal points and flexible seating, that there was a significant effect on how teachers utilized technology in their classroom, and in turn how students were able to learn from the usage of the chosen technologies. Not only was the effectiveness of technology positively impacted, but many other factors that were taken into account based on the students learning process in this type of learning environment were also positively impacted. Students noted an improvement in the quality of their teacher’s practice, mostly due to a more personalized approach for each individual student. The levels of interactivity and collaboration between students were also positively impacted, giving students opportunities to learn from each other instead of just from their teacher. Lastly, student engagement was impacted significantly, noting that it was an environment in which students were more invested and engaged in their own learning process. While there is very little other research on the correlation between the physical space in which learning takes place and the usage of technology, this study can be seen as a excellent source of initial evidence that there is indeed a positive correlation between the arrangement of a classroom and the usage of technology to create an innovative learning environment.