The winner in Slate'scontest to reinvent the American classroom.

Collective wisdom.
Nov. 12 2010 7:08 AM

The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio

The winner in Slate'scontest to reinvent the American classroom.

In the last month, Slate readers have submitted more than 350 entries in our Hive contest to reimagine the American classroom, cast thousands of votes for favored entries, and even did a live classroom-design-brainstorming session in Washington. And now our judges have picked a winner: The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, imagined by Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeainova of NAC Architecture in Seattle. Their classroom embodies the word connection. Students are connected to the earth, to the Internet, to one another, to their teacher—who can see them from anywhere in the room, even though it's a busy space.

The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, imagined by Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeainova. Click to see larger view.
The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, imagined by Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeainova. Click to see larger view.

At Stack's firm he is the "K-12 Thought Leader," and it's not surprising to learn that he has for years traveled around the country finding out just what educators would like in a classroom. He and Nesmeainova thought of just about everything in their entry: adjustable furniture, a messy art area, video screens large and small, communal areas for classes to share, carefully placed mirrors that allow for eye contact when a student and teacher sit at a computer together.

Trish Fineran, the teacher on our panel of judges, loved that the tables were on wheels. She loved the integration of spaces enabling solo work as well as large  and small group projects. Fifth-graders might not quite be ready to handle all the opportunities this room offers, so if it were her class, Fineran imagines, "they would gradually earn the right to move freely about the room and take more and more responsibility for working independently as they demonstrated responsibility to do so."

We didn't require that the designs be practical, but is the winning design one that you can imagine a school district building? In some ways, certainly. Dividers that create a trapezoid to reduce reflected sound are inexpensive and effective. A lot of what makes this interior design intriguing is the furniture and layout, which is mostly a matter of good planning. There's no reason buildings can't be designed with shared space between classrooms, one big part of why this winning entry is cool.

The winning classroom emphasizes the link between daily education and the outdoors, an idea that may sound fantastical but is becoming a reality at a growing number of American schools.

Classroom gardens—which many entries featured—have their detractors, and I understand. The prime directive in American education today is to turn students into good readers, not good kale farmers. But at the end of the day, what's more engaging to a 10-year-old than a sunny and truly living classroom?  The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio did a superlative job of capturing both the spirit of the challenge and the everyday rhythms of class—inside and out.

Congratulations to Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeainova for their fascinating design, which Slate will share with school and government officials hoping to change American classrooms.

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