Q&A with Principal Daniel Greenberg: School Common Spaces Support 21st Century Learning

Condit Elementary School in Houston had an opportunity that very few elementary schools get: to design a school from the ground up around 21st century learning practices. The school, which opened in the fall of 2016, was built following a massive 2012 voter-approved bond program.

Condit Elementary accommodates 730 students, and is a large and diverse school in the Houston Independent School District. Principal Daniel Greenberg talked to School Outfitters about the school's design and how its focus on creating common spaces instead of traditional hallways and stairwells sets up this new building to be relevant long into the future.

Who developed ideas for the design of your school?

We had a project advisory team. It consisted of our architects, [Houston Independent School District] folks, Condit teachers and administrators, and community members. We were the ones who collaborated to come up with the design. We refined our thinking around 21st century building and classrooms, and what would be specific to the needs of our schools. The architects, of course, brought a lot of things to the table that they'd seen, things that they wanted to do.

What was that vision?

We wanted to build a building that would be relevant 50 years from now. Since we can't tell you what education will be like in 50 years, one of the words that kept coming up was flexibility. How can we use [the building] in different ways now, and how can it be used in the future? So everything in our learning commons, in our classrooms, and all our spaces, is pretty much on wheels and is moveable so configurations can change from day to day, from month to month, from year to year.

In a way it was liberating because we didn't have to worry about having to make this permanent decision about our space. Because things are going to change. We know that.

What kind of research went into deciding how to design the building?

We visited a lot of schools. Parents did a lot of tours of buildings in the area. The district had some standards that needed to be part of the design as well. I know our Project Advisory Team was very forward thinking. Our architects were very forward thinking in general. So nobody came into this process saying, "Hey, let's build a building with a double stacked corridor of just classrooms and halls." We were looking for a good mix. Nobody said, "Let's have no classroom," but rather, let's have spaces that can function in ways that they haven't before.

So there is a classroom for every class. But the idea of our learning commons and other spaces where we can extend learning outside of the classroom is where I think we started to do things differently.

How did your vision translate into actual design?

So, we don't have hallways. All of our classrooms open up into the learning commons. It's a huge space. It some ways it was a blank slate as we began. The types of furniture we put in, the type of bookshelves we put it kind of work to partition the space and make it usable. Part of it also was flipping the idea of what a library was. In our old school, the library was a room. So if somebody was using it, then no one else could use it. There are a lot of great things in a media spaces now. So the idea of exploding that and making those books and that technology available to everyone at any time was really important to us. Really, everything outside of the classrooms is in the learning commons. And it did become that common flexible learning space that we were hoping for.

What were the most important things you considered when designing your space?

I think flexibility and variety. When we talked to teachers about what they wanted their classrooms to look like, we got a lot of feedback from each grade level. And eventually things became a little more standardized, because why buy 12 different kinds of desks for your building? But the two guidelines were flexibility and variety. So when you look at the classrooms you're going to have desks where you stand up, you're going to have chairs where you wobble, you're going to have school chairs that move. You're going to have different-shaped desks that fit together in different configurations.

How do the spaces facilitate learning differently than a traditional classroom?

They have quicker and immediate access to things that are outside of the classroom. Different types of books, different types of media technologies and meeting spaces. And different ways to collaborate, bringing different classes together, bringing kids together who might not be in the same classroom. Because of the way our building is set up, you can be in a third grade class, but working with someone who is in a different third grade class. So the idea of whose class you're in may not be as important anymore, which is good. Don't underestimate how important it is for kids to be learning different ways with different kids, and having access to different teachers.

Did the school have to do any professional development to get adjusted to this type of space?

No. We were not a school where kids were sitting in rows and filling out worksheets even before we were in our new building. The instructional practice was already there. The capacity of teachers was there. We were already trying to make it work in an old building. So it wasn't like, "Change the whole paradigm of how you teach." That would have been hard. I could imagine that being very difficult if that was true.

This was a building designed by people who were teaching in this way already. If we were a school that was very traditional, I think our design would have looked very different. This was not forced on us, this is how we wanted the building to look so it could function in the way we wanted it to.

What advice would you give to other schools thinking about implementing common areas in their space?

You have to work on your instruction first. Honestly, if you are still sitting in rows and having your students work out of workbooks you're doing a disservice to your students regardless of what kind of building you're in. I think it starts with instructional practice.

It's hard enough to move into a new building; it's especially hard to try to change instructional practices at the same time. The building itself isn't going to necessarily making teaching and learning better.

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