St. Thomas Aquinas School

Rethinking learning spaces

In 2013, the Kenora Catholic District School Board was strongly traditional, with limited exposure to the 21st century flexible learning space concept. Situated on the shores of the Lake of the Woods and surrounded by majestic pine trees, the town of Kenora (population 15,000) is anchored by tourism, though many families also depend on logging and mining. The school district itself, with four elementary schools and one high school, has roots stretching back to the 1880s. Today, the Kenora Catholic District School Board serves a student body of 1,500, with a wide diversity of cultures and languages.


Departing from the typical top-down pattern, the groundswell for change in Kenora’s classrooms began with teachers taking pragmatic, concrete action to transform their outdated, industrial-era classrooms into open, transparent learning environments. Teachers went digging through storage and scoured warehouses to assemble the furniture they needed, even bringing in their own pieces from home. With their willingness to challenge the possibilities, these staffers had taken the first steps in what became an era of real and meaningful change. 

Committing to Transformation

As a remote rural school district, the staff felt keenly that the latest trends in future-forward education were taking place far away in wealthier, urbanized areas. Even a visit to Toronto, the educational hub of the region, is a commitment: the provincial capital lies some 1,800 km (1,100 miles) from northwest Ontario. Despite the challenges, district staff committed to gaining in-depth knowledge of contemporary best practices and seeking out demonstrations of state-of-the-art products. “We knew we needed to do more than replace old desks and chairs,” says Robertson. “We needed to reshape our learning spaces at a very basic and fundamental level. But at first, we weren’t even sure what spatial work involved – what we could get in terms of products, what the spaces could look like, or what they could enable the students to do.” 

Intentional Change in Action

Just five years ago, most of the district teachers and staff of the district had little or no exposure to spatial strategy. A self-driven, inquiry-based approach has resulted in a complete turnaround. Kenora’s staff has evolved their own professional learning community where knowledge is developed and shared. From the project playbooks to the final purchasing decisions, the school board has elevated teacher voices and supported teachers in making their own design decisions. Today, deep, detailed input from staff inspires the entire process. As a result, teachers are empowered to use a design portal where they create ideas for new and more capable spaces. 

Shape and reshape spaces

As the transformation continues to roll out across schools and grade levels, the Kenora Catholic District School Board has evolved its own unique philosophy of spatial use. Robertson explains, “The old spaces weren’t capable of doing more than one thing. Take the elementary school library – you check out a book, you listen to a story. Now that same space is a multi-purpose learning lab with a STEM focus. With the new products, we can do science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and art in that space – without sacrificing the library along the way. The furniture is entirely mobile. It works for junior kindergarten and it works as an adult meeting space. It can serve as a maker lab. It is a Swiss Army knife of spaces.” 

“There are no shortcuts to creating a 21st century learning environment.”

BRIGHT SPACES FOR COLLABORATIVE LEARNING

The Kenora Catholic District School Board has identified two key levers that drive the redesign of their learning spaces and the teaching that takes place there. First, the re-envisioning involves no new construction, instead focusing on transforming the spaces that already exist. In a typical project, the work begins with discussions and fact-finding at the beginning of the school year in September and progresses to the stage of ordering new furnishings by April. The actual spatial transformation then takes place over the summer break.

Second, the school district has opted not to burden the spatial redesign process with a sense of urgency. The reasons are many. Being located in a remote area can impact access to real-time support and design advice. From snowstorms to budgets, other factors can impact a school year and cause a project to take longer than expected. “We don’t rush it,” says Robertson. “We really try to be intentional about the work – there’s no mandate to simply ‘get the job done.’” 


Bright Spaces for Collaborative Learning

The Kenora Catholic District School Board has identified two key levers that drive the redesign of their learning spaces and the teaching that takes place there. First, the re-envisioning involves no new construction, instead focusing on transforming the spaces that already exist. In a typical project, the work begins with discussions and fact-finding at the beginning of the school year in September and progresses to the stage of ordering new furnishings by April. The actual spatial transformation then takes place over the summer break. 

Second, the school district has opted not to burden the spatial redesign process with a sense of urgency. The reasons are many. Being located in a remote area can impact access to real-time support and design advice. From snowstorms to budgets, other factors can impact a school year and cause a project to take longer than expected. “We don’t rush it,” says Robertson. “We really try to be intentional about the work – there’s no mandate to simply ‘get the job done.’” 


Making thoughtful selections for our learning commons will allow us to deliver programming, plain and simple.

STUDENT CHAIRS

Pantoswing Lupo Chair
$0.00
Hokki Wobble Stool
$142.14

School furniture that you love. Simplified.