Students are using markers to write on the walls. Some of the learners are talking, in voices above whispers, to their classmates. A girl is kneeling against a comfy red chair, opting to rest her Chromebook on the seat as she works. Next to her is a boy sitting on the floor, sitting with a computer on his lap.
This is what learning looks like in the Grant Wood Area Education Agency’s SCALE-UP classroom.
“The whole premise is to have some flexible learning spaces that you can customize for kids,” said Stacy Behmer, the agency’s coordinator of digital learning technology. “It doesn’t have to be that traditional classroom environment for kids to learn and we wanted to model that.”
SCALE-UP, an acronym for Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies, is a concept in practice across the country and refers to inverting the traditional classroom instruction method where a teacher lectures students.
“This is on the opposite end of the spectrum from that, where the kids are leading,” Behmer said. “They’re taking ownership of their learning.”
Brad Koch, a third grade teacher at Prairie Ridge Elementary School in the College Community School District, brought his students to the agency’s Cedar Rapids location on Thursday to try out the classroom. The students, learning in the classroom for the first time, dispersed into six groups to work on one of three activities: uploading work to websites for paperless student-led conferences scheduled later this year, creating presentations for a project in which they present a budget and itinerary for a trip they’ve planned or creating and controlling animated characters for a persuasive opinion assignment.
Some of the students are seated in comfortable chairs, ones that wouldn’t be out of place in a living room or a coffee shop save for the attached desks and electrical outlets to charge devices, while others are at tables. Some of the surfaces are white boards, so students can write on them, and many of the tables face screens controlled by the Chromebooks each third-grader has in front of them. There are also portable white boards and many of the students are sitting in plastic chairs with wheels so they can roll from space to space and collaborate with different peers and do various tasks as their interests wane. Some of the learners opted to work in pairs or groups and chat, while others sat at tables but worked individually.
“Can you tell they’re starting to get comfortable?,” Koch asked Behmer as they observed the students working in the classroom.
Classmates Lexi Bell, Ryleigh Reeves and Bionca Young all sat together on Buoy Stools – cylindrical seats that rise and fall and allow users to rock back and forth – as they worked.
“They’re awesome,” Bell said of the stools. “Our other chairs are flat.”
“It feels cool,” Young added.
All three said they preferred the SCALE-UP space to their home base as Prairie Ridge.
“I wanna live in this classroom,” Reeves said. “Everything is so good here.”
Koch praised the portability of the room’s furniture and said he’d like to have the space’s amenities present in his Cedar Rapids classroom if possible. To him, the educational value for learners lay in giving them agency.
“It doesn’t work if you don’t have kids who take initiative and all kids do if you give them the opportunity,” he said. “They’re picking what works best for them. They’re given the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with their peers, but they’re not forced to.”
Area high school students have also used the classroom and agency staff members have hosted professional development sessions for teachers there as well. Behmer said the room can accommodate learners of all ages, which fits in line with goal of meeting students where they are.
Her hope is to expose educators to this alternative learning space so that they may take some of the practices back to administrators when it’s time to revamp their classrooms or purchase new equipment. Behmer admitted that the amount of technology and unconventional furniture in the classroom may be daunting, but encouraged educators to start small and upgrade in phases.
“Some of the technology they may already have,” she said, mentioning the room’s SMART Board as an example. “Do what you can do.”
In Koch’s view, the SCALE-UP model also has the potential to empower instructors while also letting students experience various learning styles.
“Sometimes a classroom does have to be direct instruction (where) I teach a skill, but there needs to be a balance,” he said. “As I get to know my kids, I can tailor to their needs.”