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September/October 2018

Kate Hughes is communications and community relations coordinator for Winnetka SD 36.

Students are the center of all we do in education. Incorporating student voices into communications and decision-making is key to telling our districts’ stories and inspiring change. There are many opportunities to bring students into the conversation during facilities innovation and improvements. We live in a rapidly changing era, and research indicates that the traditional learning spaces of the past are no longer suited for the needs of 21st-century learners. As suggested in the influential book The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning, “Look at your space with 21st century eyes: Does it work for what we know about learning today, or just for what we knew about learning in the past?”

Many educators strive to align learning environments with the unique needs and diverse interests of students. Whether unveiling a new STEM space, piloting a prototype classroom, or examining how to best modernize school facilities, student input is essential. Students can communicate why change to a learning environment is necessary and beneficial. Their input can help define facilities challenges and support research on best practices in a more authentic way. While educators may understand the need to incorporate new practices and innovation in facilities, it may be more difficult for community members to understand the “why” behind something that might not mirror their own experience in a traditional classroom.

Consider the following suggestions on bringing students to the forefront of a facilities planning and communication process.

Schedule student focus groups and brainstorming sessions.

Before implementing changes to learning environments, consider the student experience. District leaders and school board members benefit from hearing directly from learners, especially because listening to students fosters empathic decision-making. For instance, if a STEM environment is being considered, what interests students most? How would a Lego wall, sewing station, robotics area, TV studio, or other elements enhance student learning and engagement? If there is a need for more multipurpose space in a school, bring students into the discussion: Could a traditional cafeteria turn into a space for collaboration outside of the classroom? Encourage student leadership by asking them to identify the components necessary to create more versatile and inviting common areas in their school.

If major change is being considered, allow students to participate in data collection and communication. For instance, an architect may teach students how to conduct air quality testing. This hands-on ownership of their environment is empowering to students and can be tied into their daily learning. Once a new space or feature is in use, enlist students to share feedback on how it is working and can be further improved.

Set up informal listening tours for board members and administrators to interact with students in the current learning environment.

Students are eager to share honest feedback on what works, and what might be improved in their schools. Listen to this insight. Think about the modern world for which these young learners are preparing. What do career workspaces and cutting-edge higher education environments look like today? We have discovered that thermal comfort, natural light, and flexible furniture have a positive impact on student learning. Hearing directly from students on what else might enhance their daily experience — for instance, additional space to collaborate on group work or an outdoor area to allow for inquiry-based study — helps support and communicate the need for change.

Create opportunities for student involvement at board meetings and community engagement sessions.

Students may serve as presenters and ambassadors for their district. Invite students to address the school board at a meeting or welcome neighbors into their school. This offers a valuable opportunity for children to speak in front of adults and advocate for their own learning. For instance, a PTO group at a school may help support the development of an outdoor learning garden. Plan an opportunity for students to share how this has enhanced their studies. If a library has been modernized, invite community members to visit and hear directly from students about the impact of the new space. Consider filming a video of student reflections to support why innovation in design influences the school experience. This video can be posted to social media, on your website, or in your board meeting materials.

Include student voices in social media outreach and storytelling efforts.

Both traditional and social media initiatives stand out when they tell a story. Include student quotes in press releases. Enlist students to tweet on behalf of their school for the day. Bring students into the conversation when sharing challenges and celebrating progress. Share images of students in action to support communication efforts.

When actions and intent align, there is integrity in the decision-making processes. Therefore, it is important to build authentic avenues for student involvement in designing, refining, or reflecting upon the use of space as a learning resource. And, working to make communications as student-centered as possible helps school districts take bold steps in advocating for facilities to align with future-focused teaching and learning.

Space matters in education. Students can be highly effective in communicating the “why” behind facilities decision-making and help districts provide the most effective learning environments.