It's so interesting to pop into different teachers' classrooms to see how they've filled and designed their physical learning spaces. Over the last two days we've visited:
- a high school computer lab with bright, natural light, space to spread out and work on the walls
- a first grade classroom with multiple areas for different kinds of work, including areas for kids to work on the floor, on beanbags, are at a table
- a middle school makerspace complete with woodworking machinery, a computer etching machine, computers, and a range of building materials
- a high school government classroom with inspiring images, pictures of students and school events, and college pennants
What do our learning spaces communicate?
It made me wonder what our learning spaces communicate to students in higher education. What does a lecture hall with the chairs bolted to the floor in long, tiered rows say about interaction and collaboration? What does a space with flexible, easily arranged furniture communicate? What does a seminar room with mismatched chairs and writing and scratches on the table communicate? This also works the other way too. It’s key for the space configuration to match or fit the instructional approach. A lecture actually works better where all students can easily see the front of the room – like in a lecture hall.
A few years ago, I was at a university in Sweden for a workshop. It was a high profile event, and the organizers had arranged a beautiful, modern, high-tech space for the session. Each seat offered multiple power outlets, a network connection, and even a handy place to perch one's drink. The room was accented with beautiful Scandinavian wood paneling. There was only one problem. While the workshop was designed to be highly collaborative and interactive, the learning space was one of those steeply tiered lecture halls.
As the attendees filed in, we scrambled around the building looking for a more suitable room to support the interactivity we had designed for the workshop. We held the opening session in the original room. The participants seemed engaged, if a little distant.
Following the coffee break (Swedes know how to serve a proper coffee break!), we moved the workshop to a non-descript, but large and flexible room. We had arranged the tables in the room to seat five participants and positioned them in a way so that they would easily be able to see not only the front of the room, but also each other. The whole tenor of the experience changed from the beautiful but rigid initial space.
How can we tailor the learning space to our teaching?
Unlike our K-12 teaching brethren, college faculty typically don't have their "own" classroom. This means that we can't really decorate the room or even permanently arrange the space. In fact, we often have little choice or control in where we teach. What, then, can we do to tailor the space to the kind of learning experience we want to create?
- Create great visuals. While we can't put up posters or other decorations in our classrooms, we can employ great visuals. We can do this by creating engaging presentations or even printed transparencies. We can also use colors and graphics even on the whiteboards or chalkboards. I fondly remember a history professor of mine at Notre Dame that drew elaborate multicolored maps painstakingly on the chalkboard prior to class. These visuals communicated a kind of excitement and richness that wasn't lost on the students.
- Bring in your personality. We also communicate to our students by bringing our quirks, interests, and passions into the learning space. I have a colleague who distributes "agendas" for each class with relevant cartoons and graphics as a way to pique students' interest before class even begins. I had another colleague with a great sense of humor. He regularly showed brief videos, cartoons, or even humorous newspaper clippings to illustrate points from his lecture.
- If it's possible, arrange the furniture. I'm fortunate enough to teach in a building with modular furniture on wheels that can easily be rearranged in a number of different ways. For a more formal approach, I can arrange the room in neat rows. If I have designed a gallery walk experience, I push all the chairs off to the side and arrange the tables around the perimeter of the room. For small group work, I push together pairs of tables. It's easy in my current space, but I managed to do some arrangements even with less flexible furniture.
- Find interesting space on campus. Most campuses have some innovative classroom spaces. At William & Mary, we have an amazing digital media center and classroom. I haven't taught there yet, but I'm planning for it. We also have access to the Jim and Bobbie Ukrop Innovation and Design Studio. Sometimes, it can be difficult to secure the exact classroom space you want. I suggest offering nice chocolates to whoever schedules the space.
What does your ideal learning space look like?
Please post your comments below.