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Galtier Community School embraces design thinking for greater flexibility in learning

Come next autumn, when Galtier reopens, the school “is going to be a magnetic place,” says Kate Wilcox-Harris, who describes the initiative as transformative.

Plan for Galtier Community School

Earlier this year, during two sweltering days in late June, students, their parents, and teachers from Galtier Community School in St. Paul decided to revolutionize education. Their methodology? Design thinking.

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Through the American Architectural Foundation’s (AAF) Design for Learning program, which Target Corporation kicked off with its Design Thinking Boot Camp, the group re-energized and re-positioned their ideas about teaching and learning, and the spaces in which both occur.

The reason? St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) has “started a ‘personalized learning through technology’ initiative,” explains Kate Wilcox-Harris, assistant superintendent, Office of Personalized Learning, SPPS. “Actually, initiative is too small a word. It’s really a transformation.”

To accommodate the variety of ways in which children learn, she continues, “We want to shift the culture in the school district and think about how to accomplish three things: Tailor instruction and learning supports closer to students, then add students’ voices to give them more choice in their learning, and engage students in a technology-rich environment.”

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Technology in the classroom is critical today, as it “can accelerate learning and increase engagement,” says Heidi Swanson, technology integration specialist, Galtier. “Computers and tablets are great tools for accessing information in a multisensory way, and can offer students opportunities to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create to share their learning. Technology can also help students connect to our global community, strengthen their understanding of the world, build personal learning networks, and have a voice in a larger conversation.”

Galtier was selected for AAF’s Design for Learning program for several reasons. The elementary school, built in the Midway area in the 1970s, is just blocks away from the Central Corridor Light Rail Line, where adjacent neighborhoods are improving opportunities for living, working, and learning. The school houses SPPS’ Office of Personalized Learning. In addition, Galtier’s enrollment reflects the Twin Cities’ changing demographics: The student body is 60 percent African-American, 17 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino, 10 percent White, and 2 percent American Indian.

“A key aspect of personalized learning is creating flexible learning environments that become the third teacher,” says Wilcox-Harris. “So not only are materials and teachers a part of learning, but so is the space itself.”

At the end of the Design for Learning program, the school selected plans by the Minneapolis-based architectural firm Cuningham Group. The plans aim to engage students and teachers with new flexible, multipurpose spaces that shape and create learning.

Designing the third teacher

SPPS has a “long history of partnering with Target,” says Wilcox-Harris, primarily on library and media center makeovers. But with the advent of personalized learning, she continues, “flexible learning environments become a key aspect, not just in the library or media center, but throughout the entire school, so the learning spaces themselves become the third teacher.”

The Design Thinking Boot Camp is based on Target’s own collaborative processes for evaluating product design and aspects of its corporate culture, which in turn come from a Stanford Business educational program. The Boot Camp “combines Target’s two main philanthropic efforts: supporting schools and sharing great design,” says Margaret S. Parsons, architect and principal, Cuningham Group. “It’s part of the corporation’s ‘Design for All’ campaign, communicating the value of design and its role in everyday life. The Boot Camp does a great job of giving school districts and school leaders another skill set: design thinking.”

During the Boot Camp, Galtier’s participants engaged in “an active, intense, and deeply collaborative process that involved multiple perspectives, including those of architects, teachers, community members, corporate partners, administrators, parents, and students,” Swanson says. The goal was to think about activities of learning, how technology could be a tool for learning, and how to redesign the school’s physical learning spaces for greater flexibility.

AAF’s design charette followed the Boot Camp. As described in an AAF handout, the charette was “an intensive, deep-dive engagement” between the participants and several local architectural teams “to apply design thinking strategies toward the rapid and collaborative development of an actionable design solution for Galtier.”

One of the key components of AAF’s design thinking is building empathy, which Swanson says is “a fundamental skill for helping others learn. Understanding and honoring students’ strengths and choices for accessing, engaging with, and presenting information requires being an empathetic guide—one who sincerely listens and seeks to understand individuals.”

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Participants also attended a Design Leadership Institute, which resulted in a “vision for learning” at Galtier. That vision includes “Non-Negotiables” — statements that, according to the document produced during the institute, establish parameters and outcomes that must be met, such as embracing change, engaging “all students in their own learning and tailoring that experience to their diverse needs through innovative design,” and designing “school environments” that are “safe, transparent, inviting, and nurturing for learners of all racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.”

Galtier’s vision for learning also includes “Guiding Principles,” which are “rules or beliefs that serve as the foundation for systems, actions, or for making decisions.” The principles include flexibility in learning modalities, spaces, furnishings, and adapting to future technologies.

‘A magnetic place’  

As a result of the Design for Learning program, Cuningham’s plan for renovating Galtier includes the construction and remodeling of not classrooms, but “learning studios or suites with the flexibility to create a variety of settings,” says John Pfluger, design principal, Cuningham Group. “Schools need to be greedy about variety. Galtier’s new learning environments will have the flexibility and adaptability to accommodate groups of different sizes and in a variety of learning situations.”

Garage-door-like walls will open up, allowing children to move easily from room to room. Demountable partitions and easy-to-move ergonomic furniture will aid in creating flexible spaces that shape learning. The plan for Galtier’s media center is to become “more of an exploratorium,” Pfluger adds, with specific areas personalized to engage students’ varied interests. Implementation of the changes will begin next summer.

Come next autumn, when Galtier reopens, the school “is going to be a magnetic place,” says Wilcox-Harris. Cuningham’s redesign will “infuse our teaching and learning with more flexibility and collaboration, and inspire creativity in the kids,” Swanson says.

She also hopes that students will “feel ownership of a safe, inviting, and creative place where they can explore and have fun.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.