Space Matters: How Classroom & School Design Can Enhance Deeper Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) thrives with excellent pedagogy, culture, technology, partnerships and physical spaces. Yes, spaces can inspire and energize the learning journey when designed with learners in mind, according to Elaine Williamson, Maker Learning Network’s Director of Design.

Outdated Spaces, Outdated Learning

The design of many classrooms is counterproductive to deeper learning, said Williamson. She argues that in far too many classrooms, things still look the way they always have: rows of desks with learners expectantly waiting for the teacher to teach.

“This model is outdated and doesn’t address active learners,” Williamson said.

SCVi maker space
SCVi Maker Space

“Learners need the ability to physically move throughout the day, have spaces where they can sit quietly and comfortably in order to focus, as well as have room for social engagement that will spark creativity and innovation.”

The Psychology of Space

For authentic collaboration, student agency and inquiry-based practices, space matters. “Spaces can inspire or depress,” Williamson said. “Design can be effective, or it can be an obstacle to overcome.”

This philosophy is rooted in psychology, according to Williamson. She said that the use of color and lighting as well as furniture styles and type psychologically impact the people who use a space. If we are designing our learning spaces with learning in mind, Williamson said that we should not only be practical in our design but also consider how space can be fun, engaging, comfortable, flexible and even beautiful.

This is how Maker Learning Network approaches school design. “We expect that the learners will find a space that adapts to their immediate learning needs,” Williamson said. “Whether that is a quiet space for reflection or a gathering space for idea exchange, the spaces are an active part of the learners’ experience.”

Starting Points

iLEAD Lancaster open classroom
iLEAD Lancaster open classroom

When educators are considering how to design and/or use spaces, Williamson said adaptability is key.

“There isn’t an immediate need for a space to always only be used in one specific way, so having the ability to adapt and be flexible in the learning spaces is vital,” Williamson said.

As with PBL, Williamson said this process has to be a very reflective one for those designing the space. Questions we should ask ourselves are how the learners will use the space, what level of adaptability may be needed, who will be using the space and how many active or flex spaces can be created. She added that other items to consider are lighting, seating and accessibility.

Flex Your Spaces

iLEAD Agua Dulce outdoor classroom
iLEAD Agua Dulce outdoor classroom

Since collaboration is essential in high-quality PBL, Williamson said considering how many different ways students can collaborate is key to learning space design. She cites examples to consider: space for both large and small groups, areas to spread out and areas for tech use and research.

“Learning happens everywhere. However, there are key infrastructure pieces needed to help support that learning both physically and virtually.”

Flex spaces can be easily shifted to adapt to the needs of the program or learners. Williamson said that one can shift furniture to address needs based on individuals and groups, facilitation, engagement and reflective activities.

“The key to flexible learning spaces is the furniture being easily movable and interchangeable to create different types of environments,” Williamson said.

This includes pushing smaller desks together to create one large group table, using stackable chairs, rolling bookshelves and deploying creative storage solutions.

“With flex spaces, your imagination should lead. The furniture is just a tool to implement your ideas,” she said.

Fixing the Fixed Space

iLEAD Spring Meadows Exploratorium
iLEAD Spring Meadows Exploratorium

If the furniture is not bolted down, said Williamson, it’s really not a fixed space issue. She challenges educators to view their furniture as a tool that can be used to create different learning environments.

“Start moving things around. If you struggle to visualize, moving things around will help you begin the process of seeing possibilities,” Williamson said. “Use Pinterest or other resources to find images of traditional-style classrooms that have been overhauled by innovative facilitators.”

The Future of Space, Final Recommendations

The driving forces of PBL demand that we reconsider our learning spaces. We will continue to see a shift toward more flexibility and adaptability, according to Williamson.

For those either starting this journey or beginning to consider space as an important part of deeper learning, Williamson has a few recommendations.

First, she believes educators need to get away from associating silence and stillness with authentic learning.

“Don’t be afraid to let your kids move around,” she said. “They may need your guidance at first but, ultimately, autonomous learners are engaged learners.”

Alaka'i O Kaua'i classroom
Alaka’i O Kaua’i classroom

Second, Williamson recommends observing how students learn, create and operate. She said some will prefer pillows or soft, fluffy rugs, while others will gravitate toward groups, which requires larger tables or specialized furniture. She added that furniture and design can address learners’ needs as well.

“A chair that rocks or an exercise ball may work well for some when they need to focus,” she said.

Finally, Williamson recommends experimentation and asking students what might make the learning space more successful. She said it’s about trying things out and deciding what to add or remove. She remembers one teacher who removed some furniture altogether and then also lowered some tables to accommodate pillows for seats or even rugs/mats for those that didn’t want to be at a table at all.

“Sometimes less is more,” said Williamson. “Students love options. It’s OK to give them some.”

For those looking for more inspiration, Williamson said anyone is welcome to check out her Pinterest page Unique Learning Spaces. Additionally, there are two presentations that Williamson has shared and published. They are Space Matters!!! How School Design Impacts Academic Achievement and Flexible Learning Spaces: The Why behind iLEAD Design.

Featured image: Colorado SKIES Academy

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a teacher, leader, blogger, learner advocate, and the Education Content Coordinator at iLEAD Schools.
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