Research and Design Lab
The Upper Arlington High School Research and Design lab is a conceptual space to explore, prototype and design innovative approaches to teaching and learning. We began conceptualizing the lab during the 2015-2016 school year and due to a very generous donation from a local family and support from both the Upper Arlington Education Foundation and the Upper Arlington High School PTO, we have been able to invest time and resources into its development during the 2016-2017 school year.
RESEARCH AND DESIGN LAB BLOG
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Breaking through the Cement
Shut your eyes and picture a high school classroom.
Slip yourself back into those bellbottoms, those acid-washed jeans, those heavy wool jackets stitched with Varsity Letters, and waltz into your first period class. Imagine the space, the smell, the chalkboard at the front of the room, remnants of gum lingering under desks, people lined up in rows inside cinderblock walls. Listen to the heaters hum and rattle in the background. And remember the effort of pulling out papers and books, shuffling bags, scooting around, straining your neck just to connect eyes with the person behind you.
This scene is all-to-familiar for many of us, particularly those who attended schools built 50 or more years ago. Yet despite these challenges, community members and teachers work hard to make spaces meaningful for students. The PTO offers grants for SMART Boards, teachers develop and propose new curriculum and establish connections with authors, businessmen, politicians, biologists, physicians and droves of other disciplines as their lessons call for it.
All of this is in an effort to create meaningful connections, dynamic moments of thinking, minutes spent in questioning and discovery, in analysis and synthesis, in explaining and extending and evaluating.
In finding circles and moving walls inside a rigid, rectangle of cement.
But what if those walls turned to glass and the chairs morphed into swivel seats? What if the desks became modular tables, transitions took 30 seconds, and groups had the chance to spread out, to dive in, to discover and discuss without talking over neighboring groups sitting three inches away? What if students had white boards to write on, comfortable cushions to sit on, soft lighting to mellow the mood, tabletops covered in paper and shelves to store their bags so they're not in the way?
Fortunately, we don't have to imagine it anymore.
Last March, Upper Arlington applied for and received a grant that allowed us to create a classroom environment the way it could be. Steelcase, a leading educational furniture company, awarded the grant, and teachers, administrators, students, community members and consultants from Battelle for Kids worked with LOTH to create an engaging space. Once the furniture and white boards were set, the Upper Arlington Education Foundation purchased glass walls and doors, and with the help of installers and custodians who worked hard throughout the summer and early fall, the Active Learning Lab (ALL) came to life on the second floor of Upper Arlington High School's learning center.
In August and early September, the space was a spillover spot for small groups and study hall students, but as our protocols are beginning to evolve, it is turning into a place where teachers can invite students to spread out and discover in ways typical classrooms do not allow. Because of the arrangement possibilities, inside the space, students can move freely, shifting their focus to different places in the room without dragging a desk, jostling their computer, or tripping over bags. They can actually connect with their peers without straining their necks, and they have table space to sort objects without loosing them between the cracks.
Teachers are slowly starting to use the space to enrich their curriculum. In late September, Jim Kenny brought his AP Calculus class to the ALL so students could engage in a lesson of discovery. He divided students into groups of 3 or 4 and gave them slips of paper showcasing derivatives and functions. The groups were supposed to match the two; however, Mr. Kenny didn't dictate how they should approach the problem. He didn't suggest methodologies or assign groups strategies. Instead, he allowed them problem-solve, to take risks, to make mistakes, and to find success.
As the period wore on, groups utilized different methods and because they were spread out throughout the room, each group had to find their own way. They couldn't look over their shoulder at what the group next to them was doing. They were forced to figure out a plan, to test that plan, and to find their own solutions. Some decided to pick up functions and draw their derivative first. Others engaged in various methods of sorting: grouping the similar ones or identifying the ones that were most different. And the final group picked them at random.
The following day, Mr. Kenny engaged his class in a discussion of strategies and students had the chance to critique methods, to evaluate other courses of action. When he asked how they chose their strategies, groups realized the leaders of the group dictated the direction, except for the group where a leader didn't emerge. Those three students arrived at their method through discussion and consensus. As students engaged in this reflection, they gained a conscious awareness of not only the problem they solved, but how they solved it, how else they could have approached it and what they would do differently if they approached it again.
As soon as this discussion ended, Mr. Kenny gave them another chance. Adding descriptions of the derivatives and functions into the mix, he asked students to engage once more in an exercise of matching; however this time, influenced by the reflection moments before, he said every group tried a different approach.
Mr. Kenny could have attempted this lesson in room 214, but by removing his students from a rectangle dotted with rows and allowing them to spread out in the ALL, he was able to facilitate an experience that truly allowed students to discover, to explore and to problem-solve in whichever way the group saw fit. He was able to guide them as they evaluated their strategies, and he was able to bring to light the way leadership and collaboration emerged or didn't emerge, the way leaders influenced decisions, and the importance of exploring and valuing different ways of learning and doing. If the groups had been elbow-to-elbow in room 214, attempting to spread out slips across uneven desk surfaces, they might have understood functions and derivatives by the end of the period, but they probably wouldn't have had the same chance to discover them on their own.
It would be a tremendous understatement to say how excited I am to watch other teachers shift mindsets in this space, to see how learning will evolve, how this room will allow educators to explore what's possible, and give students the chance to break through the cement.
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