Building a learning community

A recent renovation at MacCorkindale Elementary gives planners and school-based staff an opportunity to build a learning community

After several months of enduring disruption from construction work and noise from the 4 senior classes living in one cramped open area, staff and students at MacCorkindale Elementary in southeast Vancouver are now enjoying a new space built to accommodate learning in the 21st century.

The renovation is a result of consultation and collaboration between MacCorkindale staff and project planners from the Vancouver School Board planning department.

Built in the early 1970's, the school is an example of the application of 'open education' concepts such as multi-age groupings and team teaching to create 'open area' or 'open space' school designs.

MacCorkindale was chosen for an educational space renovation when planning staff saw the potential in converting one of the school's four large open area classrooms into a more modern "learning community."

VSB planning department project managers Alex Grant and Robert Moore met with MacCorkindale Principal Celina Mau and her teaching staff in June 2010 to discuss the possibilities for a renovation at the school.

"Research has proven that students need learning environments where they can develop critical thinking skills, collaborate with their peers, be creative in their problem solving, work in teams, and do work in different ways," said Moore.

MacCorkindale Elementary
After the renovation: Additional rooms including learning studios and a learning commons.

Grant and Moore worked with the school-based staff to get their ideas and input on how the open classroom space could be converted into a multi-use learning community.

"I have a young teaching team who were enthusiastic to be part of envisioning how the existing space could be converted to fit a variety of teaching and learning styles and serve the diverse populations in our school," said Mau.

Mau and her staff were also encouraged by the news that since the school had room available in other areas of the school they would avoid the use of portable classrooms during the renovation.

MacCorkindale's new learning community has a capacity to enroll 120 students, 4 intermediate classes, starting at the Grade 5 level.

The new design features:

  • Shared learning commons;
  • Professional room for teachers and other staff;
  • Learning studios including a Da Vinci studio for art, science & invention projects;
  • Small group / quiet room;
  • Improved indoor/outdoor connections to light, views and a courtyard;
  • Updated technology and furniture designs;
  • Updated student storage and home-base rooms.

Construction at the school started in November 2010 and finished at the end of February 2011. Parents were supportive of the renovation plans but the construction period wasn't without stress for students, teachers and parents.

"Students found it hard to deal with the cramped learning area and noise from four senior intermediate classes and I met with our Parent Advisory Council to address parent's concerns that the construction was affecting our student academic performance," said Mau.

Now that classes have moved into the new space, Mau has seen a difference with students. "The colour scheme is soothing to their eyes and the patio doors now allow sunlight to spill into the commons area making the space bright and cheerful," she said.

"Our staff and students are really enjoying the new space and we see the potential and opportunities for a more flexible and accommodating learning environment," said Mau.

Overall the VSB Planning department and MacCorkindale staff consider the project a success. "The feedback I've gotten from our teachers is that they felt respected by being part of the consultation process. And now they feel a sense of ownership over this new space," said Mau.

Learning Commons
Students sit and study on new, movable furniture in the learning commons.

What does a Learning Community look like?
Project Manager Robert Moore takes us on a tour of the newly renovated MacCorkindale learning community.

"In Vancouver, we already have many examples of schools and programs which are incorporating 21st century learning methods including multi-age cluster classes, small annex schools and alternative programs," said Moore.

"MacCorkindale gave us an opportunity to include staff in creating a flexible educational space to accommodate a variety of teaching and learning methods."

Learning studios
Three large learning studios were created. The largest one replaces a folding 'accordion' wall with a real wall and a large garage door which can be rolled up so the class becomes part of the commons.

The large learning studios on the North side of the building can be separated into two areas with a partition wall, giving teachers flexible space. Two double-wide doors in these learning studios ensure sight lines into the commons. When students and teachers look out from their class onto other areas they feel like they belong to the same community.

Da Vinci studio for exploration and invention
The previous "wet area" was converted into a "Da Vinci studio" following the thoughts of educational planners Randall Fielding, Jeffery Lackney, and Prakash Nair.

See an explanation at http://www.designshare.com/index.php/articles/master_classroom

Leonardo Da Vinci's work blurred the lines between art, science and invention and the Da Vinci studio is a place where students can make art, invent, design, do wet and messy projects, and build and test inventions. There is access to sinks, large work tables and a durable floor surface which makes cleaning up easy. The studio is also partially enclosed but still open to the commons by a swing wall.

Smaller rooms
A small seminar room was built to fit up to 20 students. This space is good for focused learning, including special education. There is also a "quiet room" off one of the learning studio areas which is available for one-on-one instruction or assessment, or to provide a sensory, low stimulus space.

Commons - the centre of all the action
All the learning spaces were designed to look onto the commons which is a multi-functional learning space connecting all areas. This area is perfect for small group collaboration and includes new furniture that is flexible and adjustable. We chose stools and lightweight desks that be arranged in different patterns. An area with low profile sofas is perfect for informal discussions.

Let the light in
Unlike the previous design with high windows which students couldn't see out, the renovation restored windows and added glass patio doors to give access and a view onto the outside courtyard. Light is important for learning and kids need to look outside, rest their brains and have a connection to the outdoors.

Improved acoustics
Improved acoustics in the separate learning studios now mean it is possible to have 120 kids in the space without creating distracting noise.

Professional room
Professional collaboration is vital in creating a successful learning community. We created a professional room to give teachers their own workspace with computer access, and a place for private discussions and perks like their own small fridge and coffeemaker.

When teachers are in the professional room they can still see out and supervise the commons area. This room opens up possibilities for convenient and continuing communication between staff.

MacCorkindale's renovation is related to design work underway for current and future seismic project schools at other VSB elementary schools including Kitchener and Douglas and the new Kindergarten to Grade 8 school to be built at Acadia Road in UBC.

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