Voices in Tech: Flexible classroom designs aid STEM learning

Q&A with Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning at The School District of University City in Missouri
By: | Issue: April, 2019
March 14, 2019


Modern learning spaces can aid student learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, says Robert Dillon, the director of innovative learning for The School District of University City in Missouri. 

Dillon believes in using no- or low-budget design approaches to reimagine traditional rows of desks and transform them into spaces that allow students to learn actively. 

Chief technology officers and school building leaders need to actively consider the design of space, particularly in 1-to-1 learning initiatives, says Dillon, a featured speaker at the 2019 Future of Education Technology Conference for a sixth consecutive year. 

DA’s 2020 FETC will be held January 14-17 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

What is the correlation between classroom design and learning? How can schools create “brain-friendly” learning spaces?

We’re learning more from brain research—such as a room can be very distracting by having too many things on the walls. Brain research says that if you can get kids up and moving in the classroom, presenting information, or writing and sketching on writeable spaces, it makes learning stickier. 

I go into a lot of schools and see technology equipment sitting fallow. In too many places, technology purchases have the chance to really make an impact, but usage plateaus because the space and type of instruction doesn’t allow for it. 

How can a school leader design a space for technology use and active STEM learning?  

First and foremost, raise the level of intentionality. We make a lot of decision-making in current classrooms by omission instead of by commission. It’s as if inertia, momentum and tradition take over. Having a designer’s mindset is a good starting place. 

The second thing is to remember that there are so many things we could do with the perimeter of a classroom that really don’t cost money—from the color palette and the optimal amount of stuff on a wall to how natural light is let in. All of those things prime the pump for the technology purchases you make. 

Who needs to spearhead this effort?

It works best when the school leader is a champion for this. I believe we need a new generation of school leaders who have a stronger design sense. Not that they’re interior designers or have fashion sense or decoration sense, but they at least know how design, brain research and learning relate to one another.

As a middle school principal and a technology director, I saw lots of technology getting pumped into spaces. But the areas weren’t optimized for learning—all of it was out of sync. 

What do you mean by having technology and spaces “sync together”?

My role at the University City schools is to sit in the sweet spot between curriculum, operations and technology to make sure that everybody is purchasing and thinking around the same group of verbs. For example, we focus on three pillars of learning. We look to humanize, personalize and problematize learning for all students. It is important to discuss the verbs of a space. Once we know the verbs, we can put in the right furniture, technology and instruction. But until we know what’s supposed to happen in a space, we’re always kind of throwing darts.

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