All About Design - Strategies for Rethinking Learning Spaces

Designing Learning Spaces

There is a growing interest in redefining what a “classroom” is and how the legacy spaces of schools can be transformed into vibrant and contemporary spaces supporting a variety of learning modalities.

There are good reasons for that interest.  Educators have realized that the 800 square foot spaces of their schools, filled with steel-framed desks arranged in rows, are no longer sufficient for supporting a learning experience based in connection, where ubiquitous student technology affords new capacities for extending learning opportunities in completely new ways.  Such spaces are now considered to be “old-school”. They are being directly challenged by more contemporary, community-based informal spaces that students can utilize on-demand. Wanted are spaces that are comfortable, engaging and that resonate with today’s student.   Students also have access to an almost unlimited potential to learn in the digital spaces of the Web, making learning today a process that occurs not only face-to-face, but online as well.  

It is obvious that learning in a school’s space is only one aspect of where students can learn. In fact, learning today means learning across an ecology of space where school spaces are simply a single node in a larger and more complex network of potential learning spaces.  In this context, it’s appropriate to start developing strategies for improving classroom spaces so that they can connect with today’s students, support the ways in which contemporary learning can occur and become a viable and memorable aspect of a student’s education.

So, how can schools begin rethinking the traditional classroom? 

A Space for Learning

First, schools must begin with a clear declaration of what they want the student learning experience to be.  It’s not the mission statement of the school or the district, and it’s not even the vision statement.  Does your school have a set of statements that describe what students will experience as learners? Redesigning space is not about tables, bean bags, and couches, which are things; it’s about consciously designing around experience.  Begin your space design by creating a manifesto of student expectations for learning, because these have definite spatial implications.  In fact, such a manifesto should serve as the design drivers (guiding principles that direct design decisions) for all learning spaces in the school.  The furniture and the “stuff” comes later.

How Learning Looks

Secondly, schools must be able think in a broader context about school change and not be limited or constrained by their own experiences when designing for new classroom spaces.  The term “classroom” has tremendous baggage.  Any teacher or student knows what that is and what it entails-and the temptation will be to design within the construct of that understanding.  So, the first step in redesigning a classroom is to discard the notion that it has to be a classroom.  Educators must extend beyond what they are comfortable with and challenge themselves to think beyond normal towards a new condition.  To get started with this, focus on the identification of learning behaviors and then design a space that can help actualize those behaviors. 

Tools for Design

For more, and practical steps to take once a manifesto has been determined, I have compiled a list of strategies and resources that will help in rethinking the spaces where learning occurs.  You can access the resources here. (FYI: http://jakes.editme.com/classroomredesign )

Finally, it’s important to remember that the classrooms of our schools have served students successfully for years.  It’s important not to forget that, but it’s equally important to believe our “classrooms’ can indeed be much better.  As school starts for the coming year, how can you improve the spaces in which your students learn?

“How big is my classroom?  Four walls or to the horizon line?”  Christian Long


David Jakes is a recognized leader in the educational technology field, David Jakes focuses on the increased need to develop agile, 21st Century, personalized, and digitally-enhanced learning environments.  Based in Chicago, David works with the architectural firm of CannonDesign where he is a Digital Designer and Strategist for The Third Teacher+ and Cannon’s K-12 education practice.  David’s thought leadership encompasses digital storytelling, cloud-based learning environments and their relationship to physical learning spaces, mobile learning, the use and impact of social media in education and how organizations engage in change and improvement.  Before his current position with Cannon, David spent almost three decades in education as a teacher, technologist, administrator, designer and storyteller.  David is a frequent presenter at national and international educational technology conferences where he speaks about the power and promise of a new expedition for learning, and the roles that all educators have in shaping that journey.

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