The furniture has arrived and the excitement of seeing your new spaces come to life is filling the building. This is a day to see the visual manifestation of all your planning, design, and essential conversations.
For some schools, this will be the reality, but, unfortunately, all too often schools will buy new furniture without including teachers and students in the planning and design process. Other schools will do some planning and design but fail to have essential conversations about instruction and learning, and most schools struggle to find the money necessary to bring full-scale changes to their learning spaces in the way of furniture.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. All schools have an opportunity to make an impact on the personal and academic needs of all students through intentional learning space design. You’re probably already making shifts in instructional practices and infusing technology into classrooms, and you can support these changes by supplementing how your classrooms are furnished. Ask yourself and the other educators in your building these five questions before you begin your redesign to help you meet modern learning goals and bring greater joy and engagement to the classroom.
1. How are you optimizing the perimeter of the room?
Attention and engagement are high-value items in classrooms, and too often, the walls of our classrooms aren’t optimized to support students. Visual noise can be a distraction for all students, and most don’t even recognize the negative cognitive impact of walls filled with items that don’t support learning.
With a zero-dollar budget, all teachers can optimize their perimeters. This means looking at each wall with intention on a regular basis and taking some of these steps:
- Move items to the background of the room to lead to greater focus and attention.
- Consider asking students which items on the walls they refer to for learning.
- Think about expiration-date reminders for items on the wall.
- Look at the color palette that you have created around the perimeter, and limit what you can to avoid visual clutter.
2. In what ways are the classroom changes in line with the school’s overall principles of design?
Individual classroom design can make a difference in learning, but there is a multiplicative effect when the entire building is on a journey to optimize learning spaces and all teachers are designing with intention. Some schools will develop a set of learning space design principles that are applied to all learning spaces throughout the building. This can also be done by teams or grade levels, but either way allows everyone to work together to implement research-based ideas that will support students.
Design principles could include having fewer items in classrooms than the previous month, making sure students have access to more writable space, and valuing movement in the classroom by giving students permission to choose spots that allow them to do their best work.
3. How often do you use student feedback to guide your learning space design changes?
Educators value student voice, and we often work to make sure that it is a part of the instruction and assessment process. However, it’s not often a regular practice to consider student voice when evaluating our learning space design.
We often assume the choices that we make about the learning space will positively impact students, but we don’t ask them often enough about whether they agree. To see our classrooms through a new lens, we can ask students how the space serves them and how it could be improved. Strategies to gain insight from students include asking an exit ticket question once or twice a month, having students stand in their favorite locations in the room, and having students draw a sketch of the room to identify the worst parts of the room.
4. How does the research behind promoting student choice and movement impact your design decisions?
The research around the elements that contribute to effective active learning spaces continues to grow, and it is important that we translate this research into practice when we are designing spaces. Research tells us the following:
- When students have agency over their space, they are more comfortable, less stressed, and able to focus on their academic demands.
- When students are taught about how to use flexible, agile spaces, they can make decisions about what types of learning they attempt in those specific spaces.
- Improving students’ stress and anxiety levels through physical space design can open doors to greater academic success.
The research around the effects of learning spaces on student health and achievement continues to be validated and replicated. As the body of evidence grows, we need to continue to eliminate things that defy the research and enhance the work that is in sync with brain-based learning.
5. In what ways do you plan to tell the story of your redesigned space?
As you begin planning your redesign, think ahead about how you want to tell the story of your new space. Intentional space design isn’t about cute, neat, or fancy. It isn’t about decorating, and it certainly isn’t about experimenting on kids. The work you are preparing to do is about improving student joy and engagement, which can lead to greater academic success.
Your administration, parents and caregivers, and your community can trust change that they understand, so be sure that you establish your “why” early on and then stay on message about how learning space design synced with modern instruction can be a powerful catalyst for supporting student growth.
As soon as students have experienced the new space, begin to capture their feedback via video. As always, having students talk about their learning is a powerful way to showcase the impact of the space design. Continue to showcase the space in action using pictures of students doing work in the space and share broadly through newsletters and community news sources. Open your doors to public events and invite community members to see the incredible learning opportunities taking place in your classrooms.
Whether you’re planning for new classrooms, replacing the furniture in your current classrooms, or just making changes to the design of your classrooms, finding answers to these questions will help you make informed decisions. These decisions, coupled with a strong design process that brings together educators, students, and design partners, can help you make a sustainable impact in your spaces and in your students’ learning outcomes.
Dr. Robert Dillon
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