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Small tweaks to the learning space can make a big difference

By Chris Johnson
October 15, 2015
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Most educators would agree that digital technologies have changed the education landscape. But one important “technology” receives little attention: the physical learning space. In classrooms around the world, educators are using digital tools to collaborate with peers, create artifacts, communicate across national borders and crunch data. But for the most part, we are implementing these changes in physical classrooms designed decades ago.

Why should we care about the design of physical learning spaces? In The Language of School Design, authors Prakish Nair and Randall Fielding sum it up this way:

The classroom is the most visible symbol of an educational philosophy. It is a philosophy that starts with the assumption that a predetermined number of students will all learn the same thing at the same time from the same person in the same way in the same place for several hours each day.

A classroom’s simplistic design also assumes that the significant part of a student’s learning occurs in the transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student in a somewhat linear fashion. A 750-square-foot space with 25 student armchair-tablet desks and a teacher’s desk at the front of the room makes eminent sense if this is, indeed, what learning is all about.

When we implement advances in pedagogy, such as flipped classrooms or makerspaces, the traditional classroom works against us. I asked members of the ISTE Learning Spaces Network for some ideas about how to make small but significant changes to improve these learning environments. Here are some simple things you can easily adopt at little or no cost:

Mobile flip tables. These are tables with adjustable tops that transform into whiteboards. Forget the heavy wooden desks and rectangular tables! The beauty of flip tables is that students can write on them and easily move them out of the way if open space is called for.

Kelly Bornmann, the lower-school science coordinator at Collegiate School in New York, says a vendor donated some sample tables to her school. Her team uses them in a science classroom and in kindergarten. “We now have the students do their brainstorming and predicting on the tables,” she said. “With my kindergarteners, I can now flip up and move the tables to create more space for our activities, like the heart/lung relay that in previous years had to be squeezed in between our very-difficult-to-move wooden tables.”

Comfy chairs and carpets. Think about this: When you are at home reading a book or magazine, do you sit in a straight-back chair pushed up against a table or desk, or do you prefer to sit on the couch or in a soft chair? At school there are many solo and group activities that lend themselves to soft seating or spreading out on the floor.

No budget? Ask parents for hand-me-downs or find something cheap at a thrift store. Better yet, ask your students to find designs on Pinterest they can help build with recycled materials, like pallets and pillows.

Nancy Penchev, the media and instructional technology coach at Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Florida, surveyed students to find out what they wanted in their learning environment. Although a few asked for “waterslides and chocolate fountains,” most opted for more practical amenities, such as iPad carts, comfy chairs and smaller tables so they would have “room to lie on the floor to read.”

Now Scheck Hillel school has a flexible space that allows for more options. “We have the technology to meet the needs of the classroom and also meet the needs of teacher trainings,” Penchev says. “Our space is now comfortable, inviting and welcoming.”

Stand-up desks and writeable everything. As schools become more collaborative, students and teachers will spend more time brainstorming and walking around from group to group. Use shelving to create makeshift stand-up laptop space. And transform surface areas, including walls and tables, into idea boards using chalkboard paint.

Create storage space. Plenty of space is key to an inviting learning environment. As more technology enters the classroom, incorporate more places to stash devices, cords, printers and the like to keep surface areas free of clutter.

Kevin Jarrett, middle school STEAM teacher at Northfield Community School in New Jersey, said his team set out to create a student-centered learning environment last spring. After meeting with stakeholders and developing a “manifesto” listing everything they wanted, they put together a space in three weeks, and they couldn’t be happier.

“Neither could the students,” Jarrett said. “Their reactions to the new space have been beautiful to see. Their smiles, their excited comments, their ravings to their parents at home have convinced us that we have created an ideal space to foster creativity, imagination and wonder.”

Want to learn more? Pick up a copy of Get Active: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Student Success and join the ISTE Learning Spaces Network. Not an ISTE member? Join ISTE today to connect with like-minded educators.

The author would like to thank the members of the ISTE Learning Spaces Network. Their stories, as posted in the PLN forum and emails, have been edited for inclusion in this article.

Christopher G. Johnson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Arizona South. He is co-founder and chair of the ISTE Learning Spaces Network.