Classroom Design – Not everyone likes learning at Starbucks

Where do you go to work? Do you have a long commute? Is it in the cab of a truck or tractor? Is it in a restaurant? What does it look like? How does it feel? Are you excited to get there?What is the environment like?

Do you have a special place where you like to think and reflect? Write? Read? Share with someone else what you are doing/dreaming?

Is there a coffee shop where you like to go?

Do you like quiet or working in the midst conversations and people?

Sometimes one, sometimes the other?

What about doing creative work?

Does it matter where you go to do these things?

Really,
does it matter?

It does for me.

Some days I like the coffee shop, other days, the quiet of writing at my desk. It can change during the day.

What about a classroom?

I work at so many different places — kitchen table, living room, office, library, coffee shops. Some days I like the quiet while other days I listen to music or just like the sound of conversations around me. It really depends. Not all days are the same.

It really depends. Not all days are the same.

Not all days are the same.

I believe this applies to most people. For many people, there is very little choice in where they work. However, as I discussed in my previous post, this is changing as more people choose where they will work.

As a classroom teacher, I have undergone a series of shifts related to classroom design. Like many teachers, I began with the desks in rows which was more default than by any actual thought on my part. I did what knew — desks in a row. I was worried about planning, classroom management and organization without realizing how the physical classroom design affected students.

Over time this changed. Beginning about 17 years ago, I began to explore different classroom configurations including getting rid of desks for tables in groups and pairs, adding desks back but including beanbag chairs and wobble balls and allowing for different configurations depending on the students. I added plants and even put posters on the ceiling — you know you can tell when students aren’t listening when they begin to gaze upwards. I also tried a small tent in the classroom, a rocking chair, rugs and a variety of other non-tradtional items. Yet, through it all, I always felt there was something amiss.

Today, much classroom design still revolves around the idea of classroom-like-box — paying attention to different factors such as placement of materials, work centers, group learning areas, individual learning areas and a variety of other factors which can affect individual learners.

What if it was conceptualized differently?

A recent artcile in FastCompany about the office of the future has had me thinking about design for a while. The office of the future explores how offices will change to be less focused on sitting-in-a-chair and more focused on collaboration. According to the authors

The consensus is that workspaces generally will become more flexible (to accommodate different types of employees), more collaborative (this is the way work is going), and more natural.

As in business where such companies as Google, which is known to “take measures to ensure its employees work in extremely unique environments that are designed to foster creativity and out-of-the-box thinking”, push the boundaries of the work environment, there are schools that push the boundaries of design. However, a vast majority of public schools were constructed between 1950 and 2000 when school design was limited to the hallway/box version. This doesn’t mean that creative teachers aren’t reconceptualizing how they use this space in new and creative ways but it does mean that there are limitations. And, not all jurisdictions will allow for a Starbucks-type classroom — there are safety regulations that one must adhere to in whatever one does.

A recent publication by OCED — The Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments — outlines 7 Principles of learning to design learning environments.

Each of these principles focuses on a different parts of designing a learning environment with the first two related to the physical environment of the classroom.

Principle 1 — The learning environment recognises the learners as its core participants, encourages their active engagement and develops in them an understanding of their own activity as learners speaks to ensuring the main focus of the design is the learner and their learning needs. Such a focus requires that educators focus on designing a learning environment that has a multitude of options. However, as mentioned, many schools were built at a time when the prevailing ideas about schools focused on the direct teaching method. Teachers need to be creative when designing classrooms. One way to do this is to actively include students in arranging the room. This doesn’t mean letting students do whatever they want but it does mean having them use the room and provide suggestions for different areas of the room.

Principle 2 — The learning environment if founded on the social nature of learning and actively encourages well-organized co-operative learning. Learning is social but it also has an individual aspect to it that needs to be recognized. Organizing the learning space may require creative ways of meeting both these needs. Like my own learning, depending on a number of factors, being social or having more individual space really depends on what I am doing at the time. Attending to different learning needs sometimes is difficult in a classroom and requires creativity. One method I found worked well was walking-discussions — students were allowed to walk around the school or school grounds and have discussions related to the topic we were exploring.

Use What You Have — Then Be Creative

‘Learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations — a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example.

The term also encompasses the culture of a school or class — its presiding ethos and characteristics, including how individuals interact with and treat one another — as well as the ways in which teachers may organize an educational setting to facilitate learning…..’ Glossary of Educational Reform — A.W. (Tony) Bates OpenTextbook

This definition comes closer to what I consider when thinking about design. I know that the traditional image of classroom does conjer up images of desks in rows with a board and other tradtional classroom fixtures but that is beginning to change. The more the discussion can move away from stressing ‘testing, marking, grades’ to include discussions of ‘learning environment, demonstrating understanding, portfolios, collaboration, feedback, learning continuum, learning ecosystem’ the greater the possibility to envision classrooms differently.

I Wonder….

What would you do differently if you could design your classroom differently?

What would your students do differently?

Why is efficiency one of the main factors of school design?

What if creativity was the main factor for school/classroom design?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about this topic. Contact me at @kwhobbes on Twitter or get ahold of me at www.kwhobbes.wordpress.ca