21st century learning comes into focus as new schools open their doors

As new bond schools are opening across the district, teachers and students are discovering first-hand how new spaces and teaching techniques can enhance learning.

Rather than simply memorizing facts and figures, students in 21st century classrooms embrace a more holistic approach to learning that fosters in them the ability to collaborate, think critically, and problem solve. Students must not only be able to master content, but also evaluate and process what they learn and apply it effectively in the real world.

In 21st century schools and classrooms, this plays out in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Students may work individually, in clusters, or in a customary classroom set-up — or in any combination of the three. They may even work in small groups outside the classroom, using technology for project-based learning.

“These are 21st century environments, so as you walk down the hallways and the common areas, you’ll see one teacher will have desks five rows across and five deep, and another will have clusters,” HISD’s General Manager of Construction Design Dan Bankhead said of the district’s newly-opened schools. “It varies by teacher, but they’ve adapted to whichever way they need to use the facility.”

For HISD bond schools, flexibility is one of the hallmarks of 21st century school design because it allows teachers and administrators to easily adapt spaces to best suit their needs. Other common characteristics include open and colorful learning spaces, natural lighting, and huddle-spaces in larger hallways or breakout rooms to facilitate project-based group learning.

Ensuring all classrooms and schools have access to state-of-the-art technology also is key. As part of the 2012 Bond, HISD devoted $100 million for technology upgrades throughout the district. Complimenting that is the districtwide PowerUp initiative, which aims to transform teaching and learning by providing personalized learning environments for all students and enabling teachers to use technology to more effectively facilitate instruction, manage curriculum, collaborate with peers, and engage with students. As part of the initiative, all high school students receive a laptop for use at school and home. Most middle school classrooms also have access to laptop class sets.

“Each year, the instruction practice starts to change a little more,” HISD Chief Technology Information Officer Lenny Schad said during a recent meeting with the HISD Bond Oversight Committee, as he explained the technology initiative spanned multiple departments across the district.

“The power isn’t in the device, it’s about the change in instructional practice. That’s changing a culture and it takes some time. This is not a technology project, this is a district initiative.”

HISD’s $1.89 billion bond program, approved by Houston voters in 2012, is renovating or rebuilding 40 schools, including 29 high schools. Once complete, HISD will have one of the most modern portfolios of urban high schools in the country.

The bond program also includes $44.7 million to replace regional fieldhouses and improve athletics facilities, $35 million to renovate middle school restrooms, and $17.3 million for safety and security improvements.