We Need to Rethink Classroom Space


Visit the youth sections of the Phoenix Public Library and it no longer feels like a library. It is not cold. It is not sterile. It is not silent. Books are everywhere, but they are displayed prominently like one would see in a book store. There are tables and bean bags and multi-height chairs. Kids want to go to that library and kids want to stay once they are there. And, despite the lack of silence, kids are reading.

Visit the Starbucks on Camelback and Twenty-Seventh Avenue and you'll see it packed with groups that are working. High schoolers discuss First Amendment rights for their AP Government class while college students create study groups for organic chemistry. A few tables away, another student types on his laptop, with his earbuds in, tuning out the chatter of the groups.

Space matters.

So, it has me thinking about the classroom. The dominant philosophy seems to be to make the walls a living, text-based extension of what students learn in class. Add chart paper explaining concepts. Add processes and procedures for academic endeavors. Make word walls so that students have a visual reference. It sounds great. It is certainly a step away from the age of the Garfield Poster and the fake-speed-limit-signs-turned-academic-advice. This approach of covering the walls with text probably works.

But here's the thing:

I want my classroom to feel a little more like the youth section of the library.  I want an atmosphere closer to that of Starbucks. I want it to be less like we live inside of the pages of a textbook and more like we are a living ecosystem.

My friend Russ has the right idea. His classroom looks inviting. It says, "You can relax here and you can work here" at the same time. The furniture itself almost requires differentiation. It is as far from a lecture hall as it can possibly get.

I want high tables with tall swivel chairs, so that students can stand or sit when they work. I want walls that are not a creamy off-white that look dirty even when freshly painted. I want skylights and solar tubes to let in some natural light. I want to display student work, not simply stapled to a wall, but in frames - boldly proclaiming that their creativity matters. I want a wall-sized mural instead of bulletin boards.

Don't get me wrong. I would like to keep the white board. It comes in handy as a learning tool. I want to keep the bookshelves, but I want them to look a little more like the shelves at Barnes and Noble of Bookman's. I want a place where students work, but more importantly, I want it to be a place where they want to go to learn.

So, I'm thinking about taking action. I already have the standing centers in my classroom. However, right now it is mostly a blank canvas. I want to slowly transform my classroom space into something that is a little less like a classroom. I'm not entirely sure what steps I will take and I'm not sure what my administrators will allow. However, I would like to make it happen.
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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13 comments:


  1. I agree that the spaces we create for learning will influence the way we approach learning. The space also reflects our attitude about the students as people. Transforming institutional space into something human and inviting should be as important to us as transforming our curriculum. Further to my mind, our classrooms should not be retreats or islands within the school. The studio classroom needs to be throughout the school because today our learning spaces extend everywhere.

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  2. Totally an awesome concept. The dilemma is making it work inside the system. I have 32 computers on tables, crammed into a room where students sit on stools because there isn't enough room for chairs. There are rules about what I can hang on the walls and what information must be posted in the room. It takes some real creativity to make a computer lab environment feel like Starbucks. I'd love to hear and see some more ideas to incorporate into my own room.

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  3. One of the reasons I love the tables I have instead of regular old desks is that they can be set up in so many different ways. That said, there are only a certain number of ways to fit 30 high school students in a classroom of a given size, so that's the limitation, I guess.

    Elsewhere in our school, we have people working with non-traditional seating arrangements using meditation balls, rocker seats and other concentration aids.

    We've also discussed taking a section of our library to create a media "pod" where students could create using musical instruments, computers, video cameras and other tools. Right now, we're just awaiting the funding.

    All of these can help students feel more welcome in the school, but at the base, it is always going to come down to the individual teacher. If the teacher is a don't-smile-until-Christmas type, it won't matter if his classroom has beanbag chairs and a Slurpee machine. On the other hand, the most welcoming and engaging teachers can make a full-on institutional classroom feel like a living room.

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  4. `I am quite sure that classromm space refelcts the way our pedagogy really is. I cannot beleive that, let's say, a constrictivist aprroach can florish in a 'traditional' classroom, with the students in rigid rows like a coffee plantation. Not that an instructivist pedagogy would work ina 'starbucks-like' environment. Space doeen't ddefine social relationships, nor shape them mandatoriy, but it can surely help to prtomote - or to deterr - ediucational innovations. Good text!

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  5. I am blessed with a fairly spacious classroom. Due to budget cuts and the like I'm not sure exactly how many students I will have in my classes this year.

    However, one of the best things that I ever did was give up my control on room arrangement and seating charts. When my students come into the room they KNOW that they can put the desks and chairs wherever and however they want. They can be grouped, individual, or work with no desk at all.

    It was great to see them move so freely. Admittedly, there were and always will be those students who make poor choices about who they will sit with. But, it's pretty few and far between and manageable.

    Bottom line - the students appreciated the freedom/autonomy, and that was just another time consuming and mundane detail that I no longer needed to concern myself with.

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  6. I value your reflective consideration of how learning spaces provide an entry point into opportunities for teachers and learners together to create choices of seating, location, collaboration, tools, work, time use. We've prioritized a shift from teaching place to learning space in my district because we believe it's an effective way to move away from the dominant teaching wall of 20th century factory schools. Here's @mthornton78's class - where kids are able to help choose what, when, and how they will learn - even when working from some established standards:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIgEZvMc2IY&feature=plcp

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  7. I couldn't agree with you more. It's so exciting and validating that the education movement is finally taking the physical environment of the classroom seriously. So many great books out there... Have you looked at Make Space by Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley from Stanford's d.school? One of many wonderful resources.

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  8. Great to find a blog on this important piece of setting up for welcoming students. Welcoming students - that's the key. I do the best I can with the large desks that I have and constantly shift the arrangement to suit the activities we will be doing. It's refreshing, fun and sets the stage for 'ooh, something new today...' Here's a blog with a few pics for what I'm trying - both physical arrangement and a few other key start-of-school stuff (like a redo policy) that have been successful. http://takeactionscience.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/get-set-go/

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  9. I strongly agree with what you're saying here. We don't ask adults or other employees to work and learn in three-by-four foot spaces, why do we expect this of our students? Unfortunately pragmatic considerations limits effective change once we make this philosophical change. Overcrowded classrooms leave little room for re-arrangement and personal learning spaces, and I really struggles with this last year in a very small 60 year old classroom. A solution I found was to make use of EVERY little bit of available space in the school. At any given time I had small groups of students collaborating in hallways, stairwells, the library, computer lab, cloak room, vacant class and anywhere else they could find. Fortunately I have a larger classroom in a newer school this year, but it is possible to mitigate the pragmatic challenges!

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  10. I've been working on transforming my classroom into an inviting, relaxed learning space that is more like a home than an institution. I posted some pictures of my classroom as it is taking shape on my blog.
    http://thelearningpad.blogspot.com/2012/08/our-classroom-is-taking-shape.html
    and
    http://thelearningpad.blogspot.com/2012/08/classroom-seating.html

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  11. Just like with NCLB, it is a great concept and looks great on paper BUT when you try to fit it to EVERY system it's an impossible task! I tried to create a classroom environment designed for 1st graders to make good learning choices-lamps, carpets, comfortable environment, etc...and I got nothing but grief from the principal and fire marshal...I have seen schools that have these wonderful skylights and everything-but these are only a few select systems-most don't have the money to pay for basic classroom materials yet alone classroom renovations! I would love for every classroom to look like this but is it really possible?

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  12. A great resource for inspiration on designing learning spaces:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Language-School-Design-Patterns/dp/0976267004/ref=pd_sim_b_1

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