The “open classroom” concept: This isn’t your parents’ school

When you see kids running around, bouncing in their chairs and drawing on their tables, the word “classroom” doesn’t come to mind.

But the learning space at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School is an example of what a growing number of educators see as the model for the future of learning.

This isn’t your parents’ school, with rows of desks facing a teacher preaching from a podium in front of a chalkboard.

Students work in open spaces, fitting together tables to work in groups large or small. TVs connect to iPads to demonstrate lesson plans. Antsy kids sit in chairs that move with them, allowing them wiggle and learn at the same time.

“The world today that our graduates step into is different from the world we walked into,” said Shelley Clifford, head of the lower school at Mount Vernon. “When learning is bigger than a child’s desk, you have to have a place to put that.”

The result is a renovation that makes the inside of the north Atlanta school look more like an Internet startup than a traditional schoolhouse, with whiteboards, bean bags and couch cushions.

Mount Vernon opened its new space for four kindergarten classes this school year, and the school plans to expand the interior redesign through fourth grade within the next two years.

“I like to sit at a table doing work, not sitting at a desk all day,” said 6-year-old Will Inman. “It’s fun and we get to learn new things every day.”

In the modern world, students need to know how to work on projects and think for themselves before entering the workplace, said Prakash Nair, president of Fielding Nair International, a school architecture and design firm that worked with Mount Vernon Presbyterian.

Memorizing lessons and repeating answers on tests won’t cut it anymore, Nair said. Most careers demand more than rote repetition from their workers, and students should learn interactively to prepare themselves.

“Adults aren’t sitting around and just listening to what a boss tells them and repeating it back,” Nair said. “Students need to be more autonomous so they can navigate life on their own.”

Mount Vernon Presbyterian spent between $500,000 and $700,000 on its interior redesign, said head of school Brett Jacobsen.

But Nair said both public and private schools can change their facilities within existing construction budgets by using more corridor space for instruction, freeing up money to be spent on furnishings and technology.

At Pace Academy in Buckhead, a pilot class for fourth- and fifth-graders features whiteboards, work tables, and retractable plugs from the ceiling for computers or glue guns.

“We’re moving from having the teachers being the sage on the stage to being the guide on the side,” said Jasmina Patel, who teaches the design and problem-solving class. “When you flip the classroom in this manner and allow students to be in the driver’s seat, they’re more accountable for their learning.”

The Marietta City Schools district is also trying out a different class structure in a test program this year with about 50 seventh-grade students at Marietta Middle School who learn math, English, science and social studies for four hours a day in a workshop-style setting.

The class includes mobile tables, laptops, couches, mood lighting, rugs and conference spaces, said John Waller, the district’s director of secondary curriculum.

“Kids are very engaged when they’re working on their own self-selected projects and when they’re using computer technologies. That’s the way of the future,” Waller said.

Schools across the country and in the Atlanta area are adopting open-space classrooms to various degrees.

McNair Middle School in College Park is being rebuilt with a design that encourages collaborative learning rather than “sit and get” instruction, said Fulton County Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale.

When the new building opens in 2015, it will include open class spaces, interactive boards, conference tables and computer labs.

In Gwinnett County, several schools are modernizing their productivity labs and research rooms to encourage interactivity, said spokeswoman Sloan Roach. These rooms have couches, televisions, laptops, and high-top chairs and desks.

Two teachers at Woodward Academy’s upper school are trying out class configurations this year that roll tables, desks and whiteboards around depending on whether they are being used for lectures, discussions or projects, said spokeswoman Amy Morris. The school’s primary school already has classrooms with reading nooks and window seats.

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