“Technology has completely changed the way learning spaces are designed. With Smart boards, laptops and iPads, the flow of the classroom naturally shifts and teaching and learning becomes more flexible,” Weinschreider says. “There has to be room to move and collaborate in this type of environment. Teachers need to easily create custom workspaces for class, group or individual activities.”
According to Corcorran, this means a change in how classroom furniture is designed. He’s seeing more casters on tables and chairs as well as seats that can swivel. Conversation moves about the room and content can be located on a number of screens or devices in today’s classrooms, which creates an entirely different need.
“If the students are sitting in chairs that are hard to move, it’s hard for them to follow the conversation and follow the content. It’s not enough to just sit and look at the back of somebody’s head,” he says.
What Does the Space Need to Do?
When choosing products for your learning space, including furniture and technology, it’s best to start first with an idea of what needs to happen in the room. For example, when Thaler was working on a recent project for Gensler, he had to design a lab for an independent school. He toured the school and the science buildings and gathered data about the school’s needs. The result was anything but a typical lab space.
The room featured different zones. In one zone were lab benches where students could work. Another area featured an oval table where students could sit and engage in discussion. A third area included a projection surface where the teacher could set up the day’s activity and then let students break away to work. While these types of designs offer more choices in terms of the activities that can take place in a room, they also present a new challenge.
“One of the tensions that’s starting to emerge is the ability to create this flexibility also means that we have to have a little bit more space in our buildings. Desks in rows don’t take up a lot of space,” Thaler says. The same cannot be said for more modern, flexible designs.
The other type of learning space that has become popular in recent years is learning labs or maker type spaces. Thaler describes these rooms as “rough and ready” with laser cutters and technology that allows for a hands-on learning experience.
Design and Psychology
Classroom design isn’t all about aesthetics. It may surprise you to learn that design and layout have a tremendous ability to impact the way people behave in a particular space. Corcorran quotes Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, director of Education Environments at Steelcase, when he says, “If you want people to actually do different things in a space and act differently, you have to give them permission.”
In other words, if you want students to collaborate, give them an environment that encourages it. Students are conditioned to know how to behave when they enter a typical classroom. They’re supposed to sit down, be quiet and listen to the teacher. They’re not supposed to talk to one another, move around the room or take part in group activities.
“If you go into a classroom where the tables and chairs are movable and one day they’re in a circle and the next day they’re in clusters or teams, that’s a different condition,” Corcorran says. “It gives you permission through design and changes how you’re hard wired to think and act.”
Thaler, too, sees the impact an environment can have on the minds of students.
“One of the things we know is that when students are engaged in their activity and they feel comfortable in their space, deeper learning happens,” he says. It’s important to remember that engagement does not correlate to achievement. Thaler calls that claim a “slippery slope,” but says “we do know that when students are engaged and teachers are engaged the dynamics are much more positive.”
The individual elements of a classroom space work together to create an atmosphere that can either inspire students or stifle them. With that in mind, it’s easy to see what sort of negative effects a traditional classroom may have with its rigid design and structure. Active learning and true engagement require a far more flexible environment, one that gives students room to explore and succeed.