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an illustration of a desk coming out of a box

Illustrations by John Funk (Underscorefunk Design) ©2014

Beyond the Four Walls

June 20, 2014 — 

Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics make it clear the clock stops for no one, and if

you want to keep up:
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

The classroom is no exception. It’s changing in part because the idea of a one-size-fits-all education has been tossed in the dustbin, along with those old reel-to-reel film projectors. Today, technology has infiltrated every corner of the rooms where we teach, delivering formats and lessons better tailored to the needs of a diverse population of students.

“That’s the classroom of the future: it’s anywhere and everywhere,” says Winnipeg architect George Cibinel. “It’s electronic, through the Internet, sitting at Starbucks.”

Cibinel is the president of Winnipeg-based Cibinel Architects and has been designing university buildings since 1990. He’s also on the winning team for the U of M’s Visionary (re)Generation design competition, which is tasked with redeveloping the Fort Garry campus, including the former Southwood Golf Course.

Cibinel says there’s still a definite need for traditional classroom space that is acoustically separated, plugged in and flexible. But he also believes that the classroom of the future is not necessarily just an interior space; it’s a welcoming space like a well-designed town, where students, teachers, administrators and the community want to be. “They want to stay; they meet and they greet,” says Cibinel. “There’s a casual interchange.”

That same vitality exists in the places where students often choose to study, he says. “Students want to be in touch with what’s going on around them. They sometimes go to the noisiest places, like Starbucks,” says Cibinel, who at the time of this interview was himself headed to Osborne Village’s Cornerstone Café for a business meeting. “Plus, they have headphones on, banging all kinds of loud music into their heads.”

Despite these distractions, the students are completely focused, he adds. It’s a very different image from the one created by the monolithic buildings erected as schools in the past. “I think in the past—the 1970s and 1980s—and especially in elementary schools in some districts, there was this desire to design these boxes with minimal fenestration so that students weren’t disrupted or distracted by something going on outside the classrooms,” says Cibinel. “We made the situation worse and worse, we made the windows smaller and smaller. So now, if there’s anything going on outside the window, man, you’re starving to see what’s going on.”

Cibinel believes the ideal building for housing the classrooms of the future is similar in type to a warehouse. That may sound ironic, but Cibinel says what’s important is that this space is flexible, with large structural spans; cast concrete and other durable materials can be used and easily modified to accommodate changes in classroom set ups. And unlike traditional warehouses, these buildings should have as much natural light and contact with the outdoors as possible, and not just to save on lighting costs. “You’re putting people closer in touch with the natural rhythms of the day,” says Cibinel. “Visual connectivity is critical so that when someone is in a teaching environment, they see what’s going on around them and it feels good to be there.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, planning for flexibility is key to building a teaching space that works. Planning and construction of such buildings can take anywhere from three to six years to complete; meanwhile, teaching programs and technology are continually evolving. It’s important the buildings not be obsolete by the time they finally open. “You’ll spend a fortune putting in wiring, only to find out the next day you’re going wireless,” says Cibinel. “That’s what’s happened over the last 15 years.”

Another innovation, blended learning, has also morphed the classroom in its own way. Back in 2008, psychology professors Jason Leboe McGowan and Tammy Invanco launched the U of M’s first such course, providing a good way to meet the growing demand among students for Introduction to Psychology. Six years later, enrolment in the course has gone up, as has the number of psychology majors. In fact, most students complete the course in the blended learning format. Once a week, graduate school instructors provide demonstrations and discussions in a classroom setting. Otherwise, students can watch the lectures whenever or wherever they’d like.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more of (blended learning), particularly in quite large first-year classes and some second-year classes. They’ll start popping up at increasing rates,” says Leboe McGowan. “They’ve done studies … [and] the consensus is achievement in these courses is about as good, if not better, than the regular way of offering university courses.”

In the largest of classes, where interaction between the student and instructor is minimal, these interactive online lessons can enhance the learning experience, he notes. But for smaller classes, where material is more specialized and discussion strongly encouraged, the format could do the opposite.

“There’s nothing that can match sitting in a room, hearing the only expert in all of Canada, or in all of Western Canada, and they can stand there and talk about what they know best, live, in a context … [that’s] not so big that students are discouraged from asking questions. I don’t think there’s any way of replacing that part of a university experience,” says Leboe McGowan.

The U of M’s Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning wants to dig further into the research of what makes a teaching environment work.

“We always hear about the exciting research things happening at the university,” says Centre director Mark Torchia. “We don’t often hear about the exciting teaching things that happen. I want teaching and learning to be recognized at the same level as research is in its celebration, funding, resourcing, all of those things.”

desk under an overpass

Illustration: John Funk (Underscorefunk Design)

Working in collaboration with the Provost’s Office, the Centre is proposing an experimental classroom where instructors can investigate different teaching methods, classroom layouts, furniture and educational information technology software and hardware. These test grounds will be configurable—for instance, individual desks may have wheels so they can easily be moved together to form a hexagon for group work.

By giving instructors the freedom and tools to try different set-ups, Torchia hopes they’ll raise interesting questions and discover more effective teaching methods.

“In the vast majority of our classrooms, probably almost all of them, the instructor, the audio-visual controls and the whiteboard are all positioned for the instructor to be at the front of the room,” explains Torchia. “Why does it have to be at the front of the room? Are you better off in middle of the room with everybody around you? If you are, then how do you get access to the audio-visual things? It’s sort of that idea about deconstructing a traditional lecture theatre into a learning-teaching space that’s more amenable to student success.”

The first phase of the project is scheduled for this year and involves using an existing classroom for pilot studies and qualitative research. Torchia hopes to use the knowledge gained from that work to then build an actual experimental space, involving one or possibly more rooms. Before the latter can happen, however, the Centre must secure substantial funding from the university, donors or grants.

As for who will be conducting the research, Torchia says any instructor wishing to use the space to explore alternative teaching set-ups within a research context is welcome.

But with so much focus on the physical classroom, it can be easy to lose oneself in discussions about layout and technology. Melanie Janzen, the director of the School Experiences Office and a Faculty of Education professor, stripped all of this away when she developed a course involving a very different type of modern teaching environment—one that involves no traditional classroom whatsoever.

Her creation, Beyond Classrooms, gives students working towards a bachelor of education the chance to work with children and youth in non-school settings. As part of the eight-week program, the university pairs up students who have completed one year of course work and practicum with organizations like FortWhyte Alive, the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg and Rossbrook House.

“I think our teacher candidates, generally speaking, come to our faculty with a pretty traditional idea that teaching is an act of transmission and that the teacher stands at the front of the room and conveys curriculum to children,” says Janzen. “This course is trying to disrupt that. We’re taking teacher candidates outside of the classrooms and having them work in spaces that are less familiar to them.”

During their time volunteering at the organizations, the student teachers design and complete a project that draws on the students’ developing expertise as educators and that can be of use to the organization, such as developing resource materials or mentoring handbooks.

Janzen says the experience helps give student teachers a better understanding of the diverse backgrounds and environments of the young people they may one day teach. They also get a broader sense of education because the organizations prioritize educational agendas that are reflective of their larger goals—like, for instance, making art for the sake of engaging in the creative process at Winnipeg’s non-profit community arts centre Art City.

“When these things become the centre of what the organization is about, it helps to shift our students’ perspective on what’s most important,” says Janzen. “Teaching curriculum becomes maybe not as important as teaching kids. Therefore, we need to understand who these kids are, how to be in relationship with them and how to find ways to engage them educationally that makes sense to them.”


Read more stories from the summer 2014 issue of TeachingLIFE here.


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