VLK Architects

Learning for the New Generation

Each of us is motivated by something, and we all have our own interests, including students who bring these same attributes to the classroom. How educators tap into students’ motivations allows for meaningful learning. Today, regardless of the motivations they bring, students generally require an active learning environment. They like to see, touch, listen and move – many times, they require these things simultaneously. They have become accustomed to immediate feedback. They are comfortable learning by discovering their environment, and participating, not by just sitting and listening. “They” have not officially been named. Some call them Generation Z. Gary Marx, Center for Public Outreach, refers to them as Generation E (meaning equilibrium). Jason Dorsey, The Center for Generational Kinetics, is writing about them, and designates them as iGen. Regardless of their anticipated formal classification, they are our 2 to 19 year-olds generally born to Generation X parents. Research has informed us that the plasticity in the brain has changed with our younger generation, and meeting the needs of the learner now requires a unique approach in the classroom. It has been proven; they really are different!

Gone are the days of lecture and note taking. Students are comfortable responding to their environment, and socialization is critical to their development. Now, students gather at Starbucks to complete projects. Homework time has been redefined so that collaboration and technological stimulation can be achieved.

What does all of this mean for education? Pedagogy is evolving to allow for student choice, and creativity. Research shows that three learning styles: active, sensing, and visual are the characteristics that usually dominate the classroom. Some students still find lecture and note taking pleasing, but generally the way to tap into a student’s motivation is to have the material presented in a variety of ways, by another student, or with a “hands on” opportunity to feel and make sense of curricula. All of this coupled with the ever evolving technology advancements make it extremely important to understand how to support learning behaviors. Did we mention that they are concerned with the environment? They view their world, as digital natives, very differently than their parents, the digital immigrants. They watch YouTube videos and are comfortable with their presence in every corner of our universe. They are aware of ideas that support sustainability, and practice recycling. Most importantly, they are requiring us to respond.

Sure, instructional changes in the classroom are critical to the development of students; but what about other aspects of the learning environment? What does this mean for VLK Architects’ design process? The best designs force architects to think about the spaces in which students learn.

Teachers need to have the space to adequately support student learning in classrooms. I don’t just mean large space, but purposefully designed space that allows for evolving instructional methodologies, and flexible grouping of student sizes in order to foster independent work, partner work, small groups, and large groups. They need designed space to allow for collaboration, flexibility, and an extension of the learning environment, which may also require the inclusion of transparency to ensure supervision throughout instruction. Remember the traditional desk? In so many instances, a reiteration of it still exists in most classrooms, and too many times they are still arranged in rows (all facing the teacher, and allowing for little student-to-student collaboration). Students need to be a part of reconfiguring the classroom space with furniture that moves with them depending on their research needs, amount of collaboration required, and floor space.

When a new project is launched, it is important for all students to hear and experience the same expectations from the teacher. However, the need for large group instructional space almost ends there until the end of the project. Much of what we expect students to employ at the end of a curricular unit is the ability to present what was learned. In this case, students need a venue for both informal and formal presentations. How will those projects be displayed? Are they physical models, electronic presentations, lectures? Perhaps it is a skit, a song, or a musical production. With student choice being a part of the way we approach discovery and inquiry-based learning, we need to be ready to allow for the final outcome of their choices, not just the space for them to learn during the learning process. If we don’t think about space differently, and provide the technology that they need, we ask students to remain in the proverbial box that has, for so long, defined education. For years, business has been informing education that students need, in addition to a rigorous academic experience, the ability to develop soft skills in order to function as a part of a working team in industry. The opportunity for education to align to the “real world” is here, but more importantly, students are demanding a different approach.