The First Future Classroom School
In March of 2023, the first Future Classroom Lab-inspired school opened doors in Pirkkala, Finland. The Kirkonkylä school is the first one in the world to be designed and built entirely on the learning zones model first piloted by European Schoolnet in Brussels (Learn more about the FCL). The innovative and flexible classroom layout invites teachers and other education professionals to re-think traditional school environments and to imagine new ways of teaching and learning. Last year, the initiative celebrated its 10th anniversary, a decade which saw the opening of over 120 similar spaces (called “Innovative Learning Labs”) across the world.
In 2023, the FCL concept, originally developed for a single classroom, was first applied to a whole school, indicating the potential of the model to continue to respond to the needs of schools, teachers, students, and 21st-century education in general in ways that had not been thought of before.
The journey towards the opening of the first FCL school, the Kirkonkylä school, started back in late 2016 at Tampere University Teacher Training School (TUTTS) where the first Future Classroom Lab in Finland was in the making.
At the time, the school was going through an unexpected increase in the number of students which stretched the capacity of the physical space to the maximum. And then beyond it. The available infrastructure was just not suitable for the education of so many pupils and this was beginning to cause problems for students, teachers, and parents alike.
On the one hand, nobody wanted the pupils to lose in on their education due to infrastructure reasons. On the other hand, enlarging the school building by adding extra premises was going to be a costly and messy solution. Several weeks of intense discussions followed during which a consensus was beginning to form that a new approach was required. Something that had not been done before.
After the initial back-and-forth among the teachers, two of them, Mikko and Tuomo, were tasked with finding a workable solution. The situation was challenging but in it, the two teachers saw an opportunity to experiment with innovative ideas about “what else?” could education look like.
They started spending evening after evening poring over different potential solutions. It was in November of 2016 that they came across the concept of the Future Classroom Lab. The space wasn’t the typical classroom and it had that high level of flexibility which, by now, they were convinced was the key to accommodating many students from different grades in a limited space. “It was a big leap into the unknown,” Mikko reminisced .
The more they were looking at the different learning zones and the way that the education process was structured within them, the more confident they felt that an FCL was the most practical and workable solution for their specific circumstances. The next step was to present the idea to the rest of the team. Mikko and Tuomo contacted the head teacher and requested that a date be set for a general staff meeting.
In between the two of them, they were already discussing the details around the learning zones and the new ways of teaching and learning that these zones invited but in preparation for the staff meeting, they needed to zoom out of these detailed deliberations and go back to the very beginning. They had to walk the rest of the team through the concept starting from the most general idea and gradually going down to the intricacies of each specific classroom activity, other subject-specific needs, the new curriculum requirements, and a number of other major and minor aspects that had to be discussed before the plan receives the green light.
The meeting did not go according to plan.
It went better.
“Everyone was very excited! They started discussing what they could do differently with their students in this kind of learning space,” remembers Mikko.
The aspect that surprised Mikko and Tuomo most was that although their colleagues were not willing to take on the challenge of coming up with a solution themselves, they were more than willing to re-think their current pedagogical practices and try new things with their students. Hence, they were way more excited about the FCL concept than the duo had initially hoped.
Again, several weeks of intense discussions followed, but this time the mood was very different. In one corner of the meeting room, teachers of the same subject exchanged ideas about what innovative activities they can try in this new space. In another corner, teachers of the same grades were sharing ideas on potential synergies.
Eventually, the educators came together around a number of shared pedagogical objectives that later became the core of the new methodology practiced in their own Future Classroom Lab. They wanted their FCL to be a place where students take on an active role in their own education, own their learning and gradually come to see for themselves how learning is leading to self-improvement. Making students the key driver behind their own education was seen as an opportunity to encourage more autonomy in the pupils, a cornerstone of the entire process of growing up. On a different note, the FCL concept also offered a chance for project-based learning, collaboration, critical thinking, and exploration of different education technologies.
In early April 2017, the actual work began to turn the TUTTS’s old library into a Future Classroom Lab. By then, even the students were involved.
“We furnished and cleaned the space together with the students because our idea from the very beginning was to emphasize shared responsibility, to engage the pupils and instill in them a sense of ownership and understanding of the new environment,” says Tuomo.
And so, in early 2018, after a year and a half of preparations, the first Future Classroom Lab in Finland opened doors.
The Lab consists of 5 learning zones. “Explore” is the area particularly suitable for any sort of information gathering and retrieval. “Immerse” is the space for quieting down the mind, concentrating, reading, and reflecting on the information collected. “Influence” is for practicing presentations, critical thinking, argumentation, and defense of ideas as well as game-based learning and media education. “Express” is the space dedicated to physical exercises and theatre where students can act out their ideas. And finally, “Create” is where all of the previous steps come together in a tangible product. The last stop on the journey to finding workable solutions to practical problems.
“In a strange way, the journey across the 5 zones resembles the process which Tuomo and I followed to find a solution to the problem with the new curriculum.” - says Mikko.
The story could have easily ended here but people from outside Tampere University Teacher Training School had caught wind of what was going on. And they had ideas of their own…
---- Part 2 -----
Mr Mikko Salkinoja, a school principal from Pirkkala (10 kilometres away from Tampere), is one of those principals who always tries to keep up to date with the latest innovations and developments in education. It was with this goal in mind that he decided to attend ITK’19 conference, Finland's largest digital education and learning event.
This is where he met Mikko and Tuomo. As Ambassadors of the Future Classroom Lab, they were invited to speak at the event and to present to the attendees the FCL concept and the learning zones model. The initial presentation further evolved into a discussion on the potential of the active learning pedagogy to transmit 21st-century skills to students more effectively than traditional methods of instruction.
After the presentation, Mr Salkinoja was impressed but not completely convinced. Flipping the classroom from a student-centered to a teacher-centered space was going to require a significant shift in the way the teachers in his school thought about instruction and education. If he and his staff were to put students at the center of the learning process, everyone needed to be on board.
“Change in the operating culture is usually very slow and might even never happen. Quite often, even the best of ideas never become reality, because the change requires determination and a really strong vision and leadership. It is kind of a “safe bet” to continue the old way”, says Mikko Horila from KAKS10.
He and Mr Salkinoja had a brief chat at the event and exchanged contacts. No further interaction was foreseen and the FCL remained just an interesting idea Mr Salkinoja had heard for the next few months. Then he heard the news.
A new construction project was about to commence in Pirkkala and ideas were needed for developing the facility into a school. The building was unusual and did not have the design of a typical school. Something completely new had to be created from scratch but this was a challenged Mr Salkinoja welcomed.
His understanding was that preparing students for life and work in the world of the future requires training of a different kind compared to the schooling he had received. There was a growing understanding among the teachers in his school that in the future, people will have to become more autonomous and more independent in their learning. They will need to continuously acquire new skills throughout their lives and therefore, developing the skill to own your own learning journey was becoming more and more indispensable. The question was how to nurture this mindset from a young age.
He called Mikko again.
“Clearly, we had something that aligned with his vision”, Mikko remembers.
Mr Salkinoja requested a tour around KAKS10 to familiarise himself with the mechanisms of teaching and learning in the different learning zones. He spoke to teachers and school leaders about the curriculum and the different activities that educators did with students in each of the zones.
“It immediately seemed that we were on the same wavelength regarding how this innovative space design could support learning.”- says Mikko.
This discussion about the operational ideology led to several other meetings and, ultimately, to the bold decision to scale-up the FCL model and establish a whole school where instruction will take place entirely on the basis of the learning zones model.
Once the decision was taken and all parties involved were firmly set on this course of action, the technical process around setting up the school did not seem that complicated.
”From the first time we talked with Mr. Salkinoja about learning zones, it finally took only four years for the completely renovated Kirkonkylä school to be opened in Pirkkala, where the planning was based on learning zones and a strong idea of working together.” says Mikko.
During those years, teachers from the school visited FCLab in Tampere a few times to explore the concept and develop their own ideas about working with pupils in different learning zones. The team at Tampere FCLab also supported the Kirkonkylä school with advice on furniture, and technology choices and by providing feedback on solutions that had been in use at KAKS10 for several years.
Interested in exploring how the concept of the Future Classroom Lab can benefit your school? The Future Classroom Toolkit offers a collection of tools, guidance and resources for designing future classroom scenarios and using them to bring advanced and innovative learning and teaching to the classroom.