Better classrooms by design

Classroom design is a topic I just can't stop thinking about. My regular readers will know that I'm a bit obsessed with all things design. Being such a grid-loving, whitespace-promoting, typeface-discerning, color-monitoring design-nerd has caused me to begin to notice how poorly we've designed our learning spaces.

It has taken me so long to get to this topic because my primary readers are teachers. As teachers, I feel, we have the least control over how our classrooms are designed. We have no control over the size and shape of our room. We can't paint. We can't change or add lighting. We can't even pick our furniture. If you're a computer lab teacher, like me, you are even more limited, particularly if your room was designed with drop poles (Mine are rammed right in the center of my room).  There are, however, a few things we can do and can stop doing, right now, to improve the environment of our classroom.

The Problem with Classroom Design

Everything comes back to 21st century skills and learning that truly supports said skills, rather than just providing lip service. If we're really going to develop a future workforce that is comprised of creative critical thinkers who can think creatively, work creatively with others, implement innovations, use systems thinking, adapt to change, interact effectively with others, and so on, we need to begin developing learning environments that foster such skills. Our current standard classrooms tend to foster unquestioning compliance, disengagement, solitude, inflexible finite thinking, and occasionally, extreme distraction.

Some of the things I'm going to discuss here are just common sense, or they at least should be. As Inc notes in the article, 10 Office Design Tips to Foster Creativity, "On vacation, would you ever choose a hotel with fluorescent lighting and drab grey rooms?" (inc). The answer should be obvious. Of course, not everything is obvious when it comes to designing spaces for learning. The SKG project has established "seven principles of learning space design which support... a learning environment which is student-centered student-centered, collaborative, and experiential." Here are their seven principles:
  1. Comfort: a space which creates a physical and mental sense of ease and well-being
  2. Aesthetics: pleasure which includes the recognition of symmetry, harmony, simplicity and fitness for purpose
  3. Flow: the state of mind felt by the learner when totally involved in the learning experience
  4. Equity: consideration of the needs of cultural and physical differences
  5. Blending: a mixture of technological and face-to-face pedagogical resources
  6. Affordances: the “action possibilities” the learning environment provides the users, including such things as kitchens, natural light, wifi, private spaces, writing surfaces, sofas, and so on.
  7. English: Framework for 21st Century Learning
    English: Framework for 21st Century Learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  8. Repurposing: the potential for multiple usage of a space (The SKG project)

I would say that most of our classrooms do not lend themselves to any of these. We're even failing on aesthetics, let alone comfort, affordances, and repurposing. It's not like we are acting out of ignorance either. You don't have to go far on the TV dial to find a show on interior design these days, and you don't need to walk or drive very far from your home to find businesses that employ great design to attract and keep customers. Most of us should be able to at least recognize good design by now.

Better Examples

For starters, we need to look to better examples. Tragically, there are not many good examples in education, public or private. Even most university classrooms look terrible. Meanwhile, I would argue that most of us do most of our best work in better-designed environments, like our living room, a bookstore, or the local Starbucks. You may be saying that while these are awesome comfortable environments, they're not work environments. Good call. Let's look at some offices of successful innovative companies.   

Valve, makers of such awesome games as Portal, has a workspace that exemplifies the seven principles outlined above. Granted, Valve has a company policy that reflects its space. Go check out their workspace in this article.

Google also is known for developing brilliantly designed and flexible workspaces. You can view a video of the Google Garage in this Fast company article. "When you come in you can see that you can write on the tables, you can write on the walls, and then you can reconfigure the tables to be in any position you want--everything is on wheels" (Nadya Direkova, Design Evangelist). My desks are wheels, but my Power and connectivity is in rigid, poorly placed poles, forcing me to find innovative ways to make my wheeled desks sit still.

Simple Changes

The unfortunate reality is that we have no control over the size and shape of our room. We often can't paint. We can't change or add lighting (I started a three-year war with a janitor in my old building over lighting & furniture before finally giving up). We can't even pick our furniture. There are some things we can do to bring more flexibility and aesthetic maturity into our rooms.

Match your Aesthetic to your Learners

Design matters. It matter to you. If design weren't so important, retailers would not spend so much time on it. It also matters to your students, whether they can articulate it or not. Many of our students, like ourselves, cannot articulate it, but most of us have a deep subconscious reaction to our environment.

Begin with the age of your students. Is your classroom environment age-appropriate? This can be difficult for those who teach at a point of extreme liminality, like 6th grade for example. Make no mistake, though, aesthetic maturity is creeping into even our youngest students. If you're still under the impression that your 7th graders love your cat posters, Comic Sans, and Karen's Kids clipart, you need a serious reality check. Bear in mind, most posters and bulletin board visuals sold in education catalogs are "Edu-Cheese", an entire realm of graphic design that is 10 - 30 years behind and poor for that time period. Avoid edu-cheese. Your students secretly despise it.

Build in Flexibility

Some classrooms are more flexible than others. Lab tables and desktop computers aren't typically very mobile. Regular desks, on the other hand tend to be more mobile. Don't get me wrong, a more flexible work environment will be useless if your teaching style is to dictate from a podium and hand out a packet of worksheets. If you're running a project-based workshop-style gig, with a lot of movement, collaboration, and systems thinking going on, flexibility is your friend.
Teachers and students need to be able to easily move and rearrange furniture, as learning needs change throughout the day. Children need to talk to one another and collaborate with each other to make meaning of their learning; rows, even clusters, of desks, make collaboration difficult (Therese Jilek).
I've been reading about Erin Klein's classroom on the MindShift blog. While I'm not totally into her aesthetic, she is definitely coming from the right foundation and creating an environment that works for her students.
What she wanted was a classroom where students could move around freely, sit comfortably, and work together. The more she thought about it, the more she knew she wanted her classroom to have a similar feel as the children’s section in Barnes & Noble or a creative play space in a museum (Leslie Harris O’Hanlon).
Again, retailers have it right and we're miles behind. Ultimately, if you can get some other furniture, don't be afraid to use your desks in more innovative ways. As noted in Inc's Kevin Kuske interview, 10 Office Design Tips to Foster Creativity,
Think you need one desk per team member? Think again. Kuske says mobile technology has rendered this idea obsolete, which is good news for cash-strapped small-business owners [and school districts]--it frees up money for more creative space design. "Part of the cost structure everyone has is they make this assumption of a desk per person, but with mobile work, when you walk into most places, how many of those desks are actually used at any given moment? Not many," he says. In Turnstone's experience often up to 60% of desks can go (inc).
I wish I had known this when I was in the ELA classroom. I added couches, ottomans, comfy chairs, floor lamps and tables, but I still faithfully kept 30 desks. Needless to say, things got a bit crowded. Another point I missed was the idea of developing zones in my room. "Like a good city or a good restaurant, have zones," advises Kuske. "If I want to talk, I stand at the kitchen counter because that's where everyone comes and talks. If I need some privacy, I find two couches pulled together. It makes a better space, but it also makes for better collaboration because people have a choice." In your classroom, what kind of zones might you need; collaborative zones, private work zones, lab work zones?

Desolate, cluttered, & just right...

Most classrooms err on the side of 
overly-rigid & stark or over-stimulating 
and cluttered. 
Pics from Ildar Sagdejev &
Most classrooms err on the side of overly-rigid & stark or over-stimulating and cluttered. Whitespace is cool, but your room shouldn't feel like prison. On the other hand, many classrooms, particularly many elementary classrooms I've been in, go to the other extreme. If you use every color in the rainbow, have junk piled and stuck on every vertical and horizontal surface, and perhaps even things hanging from the ceiling on fishing line, chances are you're creating extreme distraction in your students. Over-stimulating and cluttered rooms "are mentally noisy causing children’s thought patterns to be interrupted, and resulting in children being unable to optimally function in the classroom" (Sandra Duncan).

Color overload is another problem avoided in home decorating, retail design, and pretty much everywhere but the classroom. Look through an educational furniture vendor catalog. You will see plastic bins sold only in assorted primary colors paired with carpets to teach myriad concepts in heavily saturated tertiary color schemes. Once you add in some inspirational math and reading posters in earth tones, cyan, and coral, you have a room that looks like a purple unicorn threw up a rainbow all over the place.
Choose a color palette of three to five colors. This may be a monochromatic scheme of several greens, or it may be a few complementary colors that you love. Then stick with that color palette. Once you start adding too many colors to your... decor, it can get to be very confusing to the viewer. Avoiding too many colors in one room is just the first rule to avoid making a color mistake in your [classroom] decor (Tonya Mickelson). 
Whitespace is still your friend. Over the years, I have accumulated tons of posters. I currently have 5 of them up. I'm thinking about ditching those. I'm trying to be intentional about what I put on my wall, and why. Not only that, I want to make it look just a bit more classy. Poster frames are nice. Maybe get two of those and rotate what gets put inside. I'm currently working with my art teacher to design some creative displays on matte board that will improve the overall look of my room. I've also become a big fan of the wall decal.

Resources, restrictions, & reaching out.

The biggest problem with classroom design is that education, particularly in the public sector has become a zero to negative budget operation. Policy makers who can afford to pay 20,000+ / year to send their kids to a private institution can wring all of the money out of public schools without a second thought. Private institutions that I know aren't doing that much better in this economy. Everyone is feeling the pinch. This leaves many of us to hope we have a job next year. We're certainly not going to ask our business office for a gift certificate to Ikea to shop for our classroom.

If there aren't grants available in this area, there should be. If you know of any, post below in comments. Freecycle and similar services are cool. Check those out. Become a DIY ninja and browse Pinterest for ideas. Make friends with the Tech Ed. department and the Art department at your High School. I prefer student made artifacts and items. It just feels more awesome to say, I know the kid that made that.

Finally, if you're going to add furniture or lighting, Talk to your building administrator. Sometimes prior permission is better than an after-thought apology. Administrators don't like surprises any more that you do. Don't let them hear about your re-decorating spree in an angry email from maintenance.

Further reading

As usual, here's the stuff I've been reading on this topic:
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