Collaborative Learning and Culture: How They Inform Design

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GUND Westminster Armour Center 25
GUND Partnership

Entering through the stone arch of a campus gateway or walking through the wood-paneled halls steeped in history are not easily replicated experiences. Especially in New England, the historic buildings on independent school campuses define their aesthetic and help separate them from each other. On campuses long steeped in history, educators want forward-thinking classroom spaces that promote and encourage collaborative learning with groups of students working together to solve a problem and teachers serving as their guide. Principles of progressive education mean teachers are no longer tethered to the front of the classroom and students are no longer seated at desks in neat, evenly spaced rows. Often, modern school design expresses flexible classroom design as minimalist box classrooms filled with moveable furniture. They lack the contextual design elements that hint to the rich history of that school, an important factor in inspiring a sense of solidarity among students. GUND has been alongside our clients researching and testing new classroom designs that support collaborative learning while emphasizing the cultural elements that build community. Independent schools have a rich tradition of creating a culture where all voices are valued. The Harkness Method is an early example of collaborative inclusive learning. It originated in 1930 at Philips Exeter Academy and is named after Edward Harkness, who bestowed a financial gift onto the school. Mr. Harkness, a graduate of Saint Paul’s School in Concord, NH, believed in a different way to educate students. The learning style he envisioned was more engaging than the traditional lecture and more dynamic because all participants would be active in discovering the class content together through facilitated discussions.

Westminster Armour Academic Center
Westminster Armour Academic Center

The Harkness Method is still a defining aspect of the independent school experience for many and works especially well for humanities and social sciences. In other disciplines, many educators find the Harkness Table limiting when they need to break out into smaller groups. Because of this, a more flexible format of collaborative learning space design is needed. The principals of learning through dialogue remain the same, while a modified classroom design increases the number of students that can participate and extends the use of the classroom space. GUND recently worked with an independent school client to assess how they could renovate an academic building to support the school’s adaptation of The Harkness Method. After testing design concepts through prototype classroom renovations, the client and design team arrived at a three-tiered approach that embodies the collaborative learning principles of the Harkness Method while allowing greater flexibility.

Traditional Harkness Method Classroom with Harkness Table: The room design embodies and celebrates the historical context of the campus with rich woodwork and crown molding, and is modernized by more contemporary lighting fixtures and whiteboards.

Modern Harkness Method Classroom: Instead of a traditional Harkness Table, this room design includes moveable tables that when brought together become a large oval table for collaborative learning discussions. The modular furniture can be easily rearranged into smaller breakout groups.

The Classroom without a Front: This design eliminates the hierarchy of a traditional classroom. Instead of the teacher in the front of the classroom with a writing surface behind them, faculty teach from multiples locations. Students are more engaged because they can no longer self-select the front or back of the classroom. Teachers use a mobile cart for their laptop, three walls are painted with whiteboard paint and two-person tables are moveable and arranged into groups without a singular focal point. This classroom design enables the teacher to be the “guide on the side” instead of the more traditional “sage on the stage.”

Pedagogies, inclusion and a strong community are the differentiating aspects of independent school education. In today’s competitive marketplace, it is just as important to make sure classrooms are designed to support a school’s approach to 21st century learning as it is to make sure they are designed to support a school’s culture and encourage a sense of belonging among its students.

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274 Graham Gund Partners 2018 04 10 Gene 82 U8