How poorly designed classroom space puts student learning at risk

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Space matters. For over 200 years we have been teaching in row-by-column seating. Many experts argue that this classroom style has conditioned both educators and students to ineffectively utilize space.

Researchers have said that space affects human behavior in powerful ways. So it is striking to realize that in education, empirical research on space is largely underutilized.

A model Steelcase Education classroom featuring Verb tables, Node Chairs and the Verb Instructor Desk.

University of Florida’s Learn Lab in the College of Design, Construction and Planning.

Typical classrooms are designed with one-quarter to one-third of the space allocated for the educator and the rest for all of the students. Hierarchy is built into the design; sometimes as an actual stage raised above the rest of the floor. As a student you are expected to sit and listen. You are not in control. You are to passively receive information provided by the educator. You sit facing forward looking at the back of your fellow student heads and at the front wall where content is being shared.

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Lennie Scott-Webber

Lennie Scott-Webber

As an educator, my role is to deliver information and control student experiences throughout the timeframe provided. I look out onto a sea of faces and it is my job to keep up with curricula demands and facilitate learning. Is this truly effective? Many would argue that this is a classic teacher-centered educating place, not a real learning place.

As stated by Patricia Wolfe in Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice, brain science tells us unequivocally we have to move to learn; this movement helps push oxygen to the brain for maximum efficiency. Research published nearly 100 years ago in Democracy and Education by John Dewey argues for a more learner-centered approach, that is one in which the student is an active participant.

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However, few educational institutions are implementing pedagogical practices to address these important issues and focus on the learner. Current spatial designs aren’t keeping up. As humans we are some of the most adaptable creatures on the planet.

So, we just continue working and teaching and trying to learn in a centuries-old design paradigm – a rectangular box with row-by-column seating in a double-loaded corridor building. The power of the design of this place has kept us from actualizing the learner-centered paradigm. Architects, designers, academics must all take responsibility for this lack of innovation. Unfortunately, it is often our students who suffer as learning becomes a chore.

So what can we collectively do? In terms of Academic Leadership, we can stop teaching to the test and focus on critical thinking and creative problem solving experiences; it’s not about content, it’s about context! Keep politics at bay by knowing what empirical findings tell us.

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Educators can acknowledge and incorporate empirical research findings from cognitive neuroscience, learning research, environment behavior and for support to change the physical design paradigm as well as the pedagogical one.

A 300 student classroom at University of Windsor, Canada.

A 300 student classroom at University of Windsor, Canada.

It is important for architects and designers to help educate educators in terms of what is possible spatially; knowing what future practices can and should look like is important. Architects must educate themselves regarding this changing landscape as well as how empirical research should impact classroom design.

They must back the full design. They must insist that the interiors and furniture are a part of the holistic design to ensure the classroom emits the power of supportive, active learning environments.

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Steelcase Education researchers have added to the body of environment behavioral knowledge in the Planning for Higher Education Journal article. We focused on student engagement, a high predictor of student success and tested evidence-based design active learning solutions. We surveyed student and faculty relative comparing ‘traditional’ (row-by-column) situations to any one of our evidence-based design/active learning settings. Students and educators both reported the design of the place and what they were able to do in these environments made the difference.

It’s simple. Design the classroom environment to support active learning – pedagogically, with appropriate technologies and space. Don’t settle! Place can make a powerful difference.

And our students deserve the opportunity to truly learn.

Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber is the director of education environments at Steelcase Education.

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