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New Teaching Labs Provide Innovative Space to Prepare Future Educators

The building plan is part of a decade-long grant designed to recruit, prepare, employ, and support forward-thinking teachers.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

January 10, 2020 | 10:45 a.m.

Students in Education Classroom

Two teaching labs and Department of Education faculty offices opened in August at Bethel’s Lakeside Center, formerly the Bethel Seminary complex.

“There really is no front of the room,” explains Associate Professor of Education Jill Martin, spinning around to show off one of the new Teaching Labs in Bethel’s Lakeside Center. “It’s communal, comfortable, so students can work side-by-side with people around them,” she explains. 

The classroom was designed to follow educational best practices, like the forward-thinking, flexible teaching spaces that are becoming more common in schools across America and at Bethel. It was part of a summer 2019 building plan for Bethel’s Department of Education, which features faculty offices, collaboration and lounge spaces for students, and teaching labs specifically designed for teacher education courses. 

The space features large, high-top tables for students who want to sit on tall stools or stand. Square tables of different heights seat four group members each, but can easily be pushed together to accommodate larger groups. Diminutive couches seat two in a casual, lounge-like area with a coffee table. The room is scattered with “poufs” and stuffed ottomans, that make the whole space resemble a coffee shop more than a traditional classroom.

And that is precisely the point. The space is a far cry from the one-directional classrooms that were common decades ago, which had stiff desk-chair combos all facing a teacher stationed at a single whiteboard or projector screen. 

“I can’t tell you how my heart breaks when I sit in one of those classrooms and see a 6-foot-4 inch tall student crammed in one of the desks. They just look so uncomfortable!” says Martin. She explains that these new spaces encourage better engagement, especially from students who learn better in tactile or communal settings, but also because teachers must adjust their teaching styles in flexible classrooms. “Here, people can sit on the floor if they want to. They can turn their chairs and look out at the amazing scenery. This is really mirroring the flexible spaces we see out in schools already.” 

Empty Education Classroom

Two teaching labs and Department of Education faculty offices opened in August at Bethel’s Lakeside Center, formerly the Bethel Seminary complex.

Bethel’s education department has a constructivist philosophy, Martin explains, which encourages open-ended learning by providing hands-on resources while allowing students to choose their own ways to learn. The goal is not to transplant textbook knowledge into students’ heads, but to teach core skills like problem-solving and inquiry.

That begins early in childhood by maintaining the culture of how children develop naturally, explains Associate Professor of Education Jolene Pearson, director of Bethel’s early childhood program. As she worked with Bethel’s facilities team to design the early childhood teaching lab, flexibility was key. Seating was designed for students to be able to work in different size groups, draw on whiteboards that wrap around the entire room, and turn their attention to different focal points depending on who’s talking and where. There is also ample storage so that education students and faculty can stow hands-on learning materials and easily adjust between courses and different lessons within them.  

“All kinds of things can be at the ready,” says Pearson. She explains one class session she builds into her semesters, where students share photos of their student teaching classrooms. They point out the benefits and challenges of each space and get ideas they can implement in their own settings. Often, students’ preferences reflect a growing movement to protect early childhood and kindergarten learning experiences from being too academic. “Students need to be able to move, and we need to allow our college students to move, too,” Pearson says. “This space is really creative, and it inspires students to want to teach that way.”  

Both teaching labs were funded by a 2010 Twin Cities Consortium grant from the Bush Foundation, designed to “provide financial resources and professional collaboration opportunities related to recruiting, preparing, employing, and supporting teachers,” says Julie Finnern, dean of professional programs. Bethel was part of a group of 14 colleges and universities across Minnesota and North and South Dakota, which received a total of $40 million from the foundation. 

“This was a fairly momentous opportunity for Bethel and the education department, as it provided us with significant funding and opportunities to try new approaches to teacher preparation and to collaborate with departments at other institutions of higher education.”

— Louise Wilson, Associate Professor of Education Emerita and Former Chair of Education

This year, the remaining funds from the Bush Foundation have created next-level spaces for Bethel’s education programs, as well as improvements within Bethel’s expanding suite of graduate-level education programs. And they’ll impact a large percentage of Bethel’s student body. Two hundred Bethel undergraduate students are pursuing majors within the education department, including elementary, secondary, or educational endorsements, with an additional 124 students pursuing a teaching endorsement in a secondary discipline, such as the visual arts, chemistry, or mathematics.  

“These spaces mirror developmental theory, first and foremost,” says Martin, mentioning the way that students’ experiences at Bethel have a ripple effect in their student teaching classrooms, among teaching partners, and in the lives of the students they’ll teach throughout their careers. Students often have positive experiences on campus that they then replicate in their districts down the road. In this way, Bethel is truly raising the bar for educational effectiveness in its students and for the diverse settings in which they’ll teach long-term. 

“We’re the researchers in this field,” Martin says. “If the movement toward flexible environments is going to impact our college-level learners, aren’t we the ones who ought to be informing, inspiring, and assisting our public and private school counterparts?”

Study Education at Bethel University

At Bethel, we recognize the plethora of opportunities for educators both within and outside of traditional education settings, which is why we encourage and promote cross-disciplinary learning that helps students combine their passions. We go beyond books and theories with significant, real-world experiences in a number of diverse settings to ensure your success. And we do this while integrating your faith in Christ into everything you learn so you can lead and serve in incredible ways—in the classroom and in our world.

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