By Lauren Rudin, 6th and 7th Grade English Teacher
Though Vanilla Ice was not rapping about a collaborative learning environment in “Ice Ice Baby,” he, in fact, is speaking of “a brand new invention.” The co-lab, which is a mobile learning environment, reinvents what educators have always thought of as a typical classroom.
With all of the furniture, including chairs, tables, and whiteboards, on wheels, students can create an environment that is suitable to their individual learning styles. In order for this to occur, all of the furniture is stacked and placed to the side of the room prior to each class. Therefore, students are walking into a blank canvas, and they are asked to “paint” a picture, using furniture, so that they can create a conducive environment for the lesson that day. As they move the furniture into place, students construct a learning space that will help them achieve the objectives of the day’s lesson. Thus, the furniture becomes a strong foundation that enables students to embark on their individual academic journeys in a room that is conducive to their learning styles.
As previously stated, all of the furniture is on wheels; though the tables have locks to make them immobile, the chairs do not. In other words, the chairs always move. Always! While some students can refrain from continuously sliding around in their chairs, others cannot. In some cases, these chairs have become a source of entertainment– the kind of entertainment that captivates students and steals their attention. The first lesson I have learned is the following:
all furniture should be able to both move easily and lock when necessary.
The flexible learning space is the perfect tool to promote student collaboration. The movable furniture is an important tool that enables students to easily work together in a distraction-free environment. Students can push together tables to create a large working space, they can use whiteboards as partitions to eliminate outside interruptions, and they can even eliminate all furniture altogether if they want an open space. The beauty of the co-lab is that all of these different classroom layouts can happen simultaneously, thereby giving
all students the ability to succeed.
One of the most valuable resources available to students in the co-lab is the Idea Wall, a large wall coated with Idea paint that can be written on. The Idea Wall makes it possible for every student in the class to collaborate on a single task; they can work side-by-side in order to reach a common goal. Additionally, individual students are encouraged to brainstorm on the wall separately, but by visually displaying her or his work, each student can find commonalities with her or his peers that they might not have otherwise. Therefore, the Idea Wall provides an additional blank canvas for students to envision their own thoughts and opinions and relate them to their peers’ various perspectives.
One of the fundamental ingredients for a successful flexible learning environment is that teachers must listen to their students’ needs. If a student feels he can think and write best lying on the floor, he is free to do just that. If a different student works best by sitting on an inflatable chair, he is permitted to do so. And, if another student needs to brainstorm on the Idea Wall in order to organize his thoughts, he is able to map out his thoughts. Students have individual needs, so it is important for teachers to trust that students will make positive academic choices when selecting and creating their individual learning environments. Thus, one of the most difficult lessons I have learned through this process is that
each individual student will achieve the lesson’s objective using different strategies.
I have had to say goodbye to the seemingly orderly vision of students sitting in rows of desks. My new reality– students sitting, standing, and lying down with furniture strategically placed all over the room– has been a difficult adjustment, but a humbling experience. The co-lab has changed my view of what a productive classroom should look like. I have always known that each one of my students is different, and no two people are the same, so why should their learning environments be identical?