Reimagining Classroom Real Estate

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Creating a personalized learning culture — one that values collaboration and self-direction, curiosity and questioning, creation and revision — requires reimagining the physical environment. I just finished a powerful read, “Humanizing the Education Machine,” that brought this to the forefront for me again about the relationship between physical space and personalizing learning.

“How are we approaching design and how are we influencing the learning experience? If we design with the learning experience in mind, we will see a cascade of change. By redesigning how we would like kids, content, and teachers to interact, we change their relationships. Changed relationships change the learning experience” — p.189-190.

Whether you have a few dollars, a small grant, or a larger budget to support your reimagining, here are some guidelines to support the makeover. Use your students to help with this design thinking.

Focus on the why. What problem are you trying to solve? Who do you need to help you solve it?

  • Take a look at your classroom with your students. What message is it sending?
  • Based on the physical set up, who is the most important person(s) in the room?
  • Based on what’s hanging on the walls, what are the key priorities?
  • Based on the navigation in classroom routines (individual and small teams), who’s in charge of the learning?

Imagine a blank canvas — 500 to 1200 square feet. What would you keep? What needs to be reconfigured? What needs to be retired?

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to think about beliefs about physical space and learning. I remember when I first started teaching high school, one of my colleagues cut open tennis balls and used them on the bottom of chairs to make it easier for students to move them for regular collaboration time. Just because you replicate this design (or have furniture on casters) does not mean that the learning culture has become more personalized.

When you talk with students, colleagues, and engage in self-reflection, space and learning are intimately related. The ability to gaze out a window and see nature can have an impact on creativity and flexible thinking. The opportunity to settle into a soft cushion can have an impact on getting immersed in a text or an idea. The thoughtfulness of the space primes the pump for learning. Think about color, lighting, mood, posture.

I can hear some readers in my head already lamenting that:

  • Not everyone is blessed with good real estate. Some educators are assigned a room with no windows.
  • Others visit rooms for a period of time so they don’t own the physical space.
  • There are strict policies in areas such as furniture and fire codes. There is little freedom for me to do any meaningful redesign.

Check out this protocol I developed a few years ago to begin to start the conversation:

Directions:
For each of the designated spaces in the school that your team has been assigned, conduct a 3-5 minute visual survey. Use the questions below to evaluate what that space “looks like” from the perspective of the student. Record your team’s findings and deposit this slip in the designated envelope.
  1. What are the visual cues on the walls of the space? How do those visual cues reflect the learning priorities (big ideas, established goals, targeted strategies and protocols)?Is there evidence in the space of what quality work looks like? (Rubrics, student models)
  2. Are the visual cues easily accessible to the people who use the space? (Font size, layout)
  3. How does the organization of furniture communicate the relationship between teacher and student? Amongst students?
  4. How does the organization of furniture communicate the nature of the discipline?
  5. (If applicable) How is “board space” used? How much room is there for students to use it to think aloud – space to record ideas, show sample problems? How much space is used to manage the classroom (rules, schedules, homework)?

Designing Physical Space Mindful of Teaching for Understanding

Directions:
Based on the feedback you received about “your space” from the walkthrough teams and your own self-reflection, use the following three questions to reevaluate the physical space you inhabit with students.
  1. What is the nature of the work that students and staff engage in in “your space”?
    Example: In a guidance counselor’s office, the nature of the work is related to goal setting, conflict resolution, highly sensitive personal issues, and academic planning.
  2. How might you rethink the organization of the furniture to more effectively communicate that to students?
    Example: Have a private space in the classroom for students to think and work independently as an extension of learning. Organize desks in the classroom in clusters to communicate the importance of collaborative problem solving. Hang a white board on both ends of a classroom so that students can visually develop and model their thinking.
  3. How might you rethink what and where you post visual cues to more effectively communicate that?
    Example: Hang visual cues that the teacher needs (state standards, bell schedule on the back wall so it is in the teacher’s direct line of vision). Hang visual cues that focus the learner on the front wall of the classroom (essential questions, rubric criteria, student work samples).

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