This is part two of a two part series.
In part one of this two part series, we looked at steps to transform a traditional classroom into an engaging learning environment. There were some key takeaways from that first article which will be the backbone of this section’s focus: While it’s clear that some things/people may never change, there are those who have the ability to influence many of the barriers to the effective use of classrooms and technology as learning tools. First is including those who have passion for modern learning to have a voice in the learning space design.
This can include educators, administrators and students. Second is evaluating the types of rooms that may be necessary using group feedback, school goals, future thinking and building layout. Finally, determining the configuration of the room that will work best including technology equipment, furniture, lighting, connectivity, etc. In part two we will take a more detailed look at room layout and design and why it is imperative to effective teaching and learning.
We know that the “ideal team” to consult during the design phase of a modern classroom is rarely realized — the ideal team being: architects/designers, consultants, administrators, technology managers, instructors, instructional designers and students. Many challenges with creating modern learning spaces often arise as a result of traditional predispositions. For example, teachers who were trained to teach in a lecture style environment may have trouble fully grasping the flexibility and versatility of modern classrooms in a way that allows the design and technology to positively affect learning outcomes and behavior until trained otherwise. Unless these predispositions toward historic teaching methods and rigid room layout are tested and/or eliminated, modern classroom designs will only be as effective as the student/instructor interaction within the space.
So what does a modern classroom look like? That depends on whom you are asking. Regardless of the differences in definitions, there seem to be some basic similarities throughout. A modern classroom utilizes a flexible layout, it is rich in technology, it supports both individual and group work, it encourages practical engagement and it is durable. These active or blended spaces require pedagogical changes but they also require re-assessing the functionality of every piece of the room. Integrated correctly and these rooms will not only have a positive influence over student learning but will also be able to affect other important traits such as team-building, trust and communication. Further, these technology rich spaces also offer tools for underserved groups and those with disabilities by offering supportive devices, equipment and layout for visually and hearing impaired students.
Room Design and the Equipment for Engagement
Desks, tables, podiums, cabinets, screens, displays, equipment and room orientation have to be evaluated. David Barnett, senior consultant at The Sextant Group, is an expert on classroom technology design and integration. He believes, “the biggest challenge here is to anticipate the need — well in advance, so that the appropriate infrastructure can be incorporated into the physical design (e.g. construction documents) of the space.” I argue that furniture and equipment orientation within the room and the design and aesthetics of the space has just as much to do with engagement and student success as pedagogy. In fact, beyond learning assessment, room design is shown to significantly influence student morale and behavior.
Here’s an example to put this in perspective:
I was recently at my son’s high school for program orientation night. Parents were asked to follow their child’s schedule from class to class to get a feel for “a day in the life” and learn more about the class curriculum for the year. I was sitting in my son’s biology class at a lab table that I was sharing with three or four other parents. The teacher was standing at the front of the room behind her counter height table. She was excitedly reviewing the new ideas she had to incorporate an interactive whiteboard into her lessons. This seemed like an instructor with a passion for teaching with technology and the engagement of her students. But there was a problem; her big black lab table crossed three quarters of the front of the room, making flow, movement and interaction with the board — which was hanging on the wall behind her table — prohibitive. This layout will quite possibly limit the influence that the technology will have in the engagement, comprehension and retention of information for students. It also causes confusion; a black lab table looks to be a barrier. In addition to that, students have historically been taught to avoid going up to a teacher’s desk unless specifically given permission. Why would a student want to cross that barrier? At the end of the year I asked my son how often they used the board. His response what that the teacher used it often. The students didn’t use it.
Barnett notes the hurdles of furniture placement, “Laying out work surfaces is more of a challenge then it ever was. Space is required for a traditional notebook (paper based or electronic tablet), as well as one or more BYOD electronic devices (e.g. laptop, tablet, smart phone), and any other technology required such as microphones, user interface device (buttons for polling or touchpanels), and power/data/AV ports.”
Agility in these spaces is imperative, as they will not be used the same way all the time. When working with modern curriculum that requires both individual and group work, having moveable furniture is essential. Barnett warns that, “there are several trends impacting furniture, some of them leading to potentially conflicting sets of requirements. It needs to be movable and flexible, yet durable and easy to set up, modular with a small footprint, and equipped with [technology] equipment fostering collaboration.” Also consider flow, light and sightlines, all of which affect student and instructor behavior.
Layout and Behavior
As mentioned, contemporary classrooms should be active spaces – meaning that instructors focus class time on collaborative and practical application exercises as well as individual work or lecture centered periods. An active learning room can be designed as if there is no front or back of the room; round work tables or moveable desks and tables oriented in circles or semi-circles are placed throughout the room. White boards and displays — or projectors and screens — can be situated on the outside walls next to the group worktables. Each area should have connectivity and power for laptops or tablets. This layout allows smaller groups of students to work together on course curriculum and help each other through problem solving and comprehension. The technology and ease of connectivity offer immediate research opportunities, sharing information between students and instructor.
Being able to bring chairs or tables together creates an environment that is more open to discussion and interaction. It changes the dynamic of the students and teacher. It creates a welcoming environment to share ideas and opinions. It offers the ability to have areas of the room designated for hands on learning potentially giving permission for students to feel able to move about the room freely.
Active Learning Should Equal Enhanced Learning
How easily is collaborative curriculum implemented in these modern classrooms and do they really correlate to increased student assessment? Recently, I sat with a professor from Philadelphia University, Jeffrey Ashley, who was part of a team of instructors, students, technologists and administrators who helped create, install and evaluate a brand new active learning space in one of their design buildings. It is incredible to learn about how much prep goes into every phase of this project — design and room planning, equipment evaluation, installation, instructional design, interactivity and feedback/analysis. Even though this is the third semester that this room is being used for instruction, the work continues in an effort to determine how to use the room, what type of activities/interactivity results in the most student success, and if this room should be duplicated in other areas throughout campus.
Owners make the difference: Keep in mind that for this project, teachers, students, technologists and administrators were all part of classroom design team. The administration made sure ALL stakeholders have ownership of the process, products and space layout. Further, the administration determined that modifying class structure and pedagogy must be attempted by instructors who are “change advocates;” possessing the reputation as early adopters who are not afraid of technology and see it as a compliment to their strategies and classroom learning objectives. Success depends upon patient and communicative teams of these change advocates who work off each other’s successes and failures.
Clearly the modern classroom doesn’t come without challenges. Layout and design not only influence engagement and achievement, but also behavior and morale. We are in a transition between traditional teaching and active learning. Both students and instructors have become comfortable with the limitations and expectations of a rigid classroom environment. The significant changes that are being made to learning spaces and pedagogy may meet some pushback. However, the realization that these changes can produce positive results for all students both academically, behaviorally and socially is the fuel that schools need to keep moving toward the modern classroom design.