This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, Summer 2017.

It’s the age-old education question: how do kids learn best? And as far as facilities go, do students best learn sitting in rows of desks, or in flexible environments where they can explore and learn in a variety of ways? This isn’t the first time educators at Singapore American School have considered that question, or tried new learning environments.

In the late 1970s, SAS began experimenting with a new approach called Individually Guided Education. This personalized approach was adopted in part to account for the diversity of our student backgrounds; plus, the movement was sweeping the US and was considered to be the most effective emerging teaching methodology. Mostly remembered for its open classroom layout and multi-grade mixes of student learning groups, the movement did away with whole-class lessons and standardized tests, and promoted a less detailed curriculum.

Contemporary Learning Spaces

The experiment of the 1970s had some successes, but in many other respects had deep failures, with unintended consequences for a generation of students and educators. The physical space often resulted in one large unregulated open space, and noise and distractions were a consistent battle cry of classroom teachers. But there were successes as well. The best open classrooms had planned settings where students learned at an individualized pace, guided by teachers while circulating through centers of learning. Teachers helped students negotiate each subject and learning center activity on the principle that children learn best when they are interested in what they are doing. There were sound concepts that have persisted in good learning theory for the subsequent 50 years.

So why did the open classroom concept of he 1970s fail?

There were obvious physical challenges with acoustics, and the physical design didn’t take into consideration how space can be used in multiple ways, not just through open space. But as important, teacher training was inadequate and curriculum was unstructured. Teachers were presented with a new space and a new teaching approach, but without training and clear standards, they reverted to what they knew—a style of teaching that wasn’t supported by the buildings they taught in or the materials they were asked to teach. It was a pedagogical and physical clash that ultimately failed.

As we consider providing the best possible educational experience for our students, we are cognizant to carefully examine the drivers for change, ensuring that we have learned from the past, and taking into consideration the most current research in how to facilitate high levels of learning for our students. We know that we need to carefully balance pedagogy, practices, and facilities. In the 1970s, and in other cases since that time, facilities drove practices, to the detriment of both. This is one instance where “If you build it, they will come,” just didn’t work.

Over the last several years, we realized the need to change our pedagogy and practices to help students acquire skills they need most for their future—our desired student learning outcomes of character, collaboration, communication, content knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, and cultural competence. We invested significant resources to leverage what we know about the learning process and are preparing our teachers to deliver these best practices.

Contemporary Learning Spaces

Dramatic advances in brain research have caused us to refine our understanding of how kids learn. Aside from spaces, we know more about how to engage students in meaningful ways so that they are learning more and better than ever before. Further, we know that our new insights about pedagogy and practice create outcomes that are attractive to colleges and will benefit students throughout their entire life.

In our case, pedagogy and practice are well on their way to delivering on personalized learning and the skills students need. I’m proud that we didn’t build new facilities ahead of the work on our culture and practices; rather, we’ve taken the time to find the right approaches to teaching and learning and are allowing facilities to follow.

The 1970s taught us that facility design on its own cannot force pedagogical change. However, we are quickly reaching the tipping point where the pedagogy and practices at SAS are now restrained by our architectural constraints. We know that our learning spaces must reflect the collaborative, flexible nature that our curriculum and teaching strategies will increasingly employ.

A flexible learning environment is just one part of personalized learning. We will always have a common, guaranteed, and viable curriculum—which includes competency-based learning progressions—a non-negotiable institutional commitment that we hold dear. We embrace excellence as one of our tenants. The loss of curriculum from the 1970s won’t be repeated here. Ever.

We are also at a point where we need to strategically plan our facilities as they age. We’ve entered a facilities master planning process to plan the SAS campus of the future that aligns with our 2020 strategic plan.

But our community won’t have to wait years to experience glimpses of the SAS campus of the future. Together with the facilities task force and our master planning partner, we are in the process of planning several “pathfinder” projects for next school year. These smaller scale immediate projects will allow us to experience in the short term the learning environment we eventually want to implement throughout the school. They will enable more inquiry-based learning, collaboration, and interdisciplinary studies.

Our first pathfinder projects will reimagine some of our kindergarten and sixth grade classes for this August and will create flexible spaces in the high school center of innovation to support Catalyst and other technology and elective programs. We will also leverage these ideas in our kindergarten Chinese immersion program set to launch in August.

Our teachers have been planning for months how they will effectively utilize these new environments to explore ways they personalize learning. And going forward, professional development will enable all faculty to make the most of these learning environments.

As we consider our vision—a world leader in education, cultivating exceptional thinkers, prepared for the future—we are excited about our emerging pedagogy, practices, and facilities to support our vision.

Already we’ve learned a lot from our contemporary learning spaces. Our early learning center, with its two-year old hub-style learning communities, has found increased attentiveness and higher levels of student engagement. Two of our fourth grade classes have been using a modified hub concept, removing a wall between classrooms and creating different learning zones to team teach. They have seen incredible results and students love it!

Contemporary Learning Spaces

Educational and technological fads come and go. At SAS we are committed to investing in strategies that we know will ensure high levels of learning and leverage the individuality of each student. We know some of the key skills students will need for their future—collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking—and we are committed to making sure that they develop those skills deeply. If we know that adjusting the way we arrange classrooms will enhance these skills, how can we provide anything less?

Components of contemporary learning spaces:

  • Purposeful learning environments
  • Natural barriers
  • Noise-cancelling materials
  • Quiet areas
  • Spaces configured for large and small group projects and
  • individual work
  • Shared resources
  • Partitionable spaces
  • Indoor-outdoor connections to expand the learning
  • environments
  • Movable, flexible furnishings
  • Collaborative planning spaces for teachers
  • Opportunities for hands on learning experiences in conversation with other children
  • Strategically leveraged technology for individual learning
  • Student-directed learning

Click here to read more articles from Journeys Magazine, Summer 2017.


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