Classrooms or learning rooms: How does space define learning?

In the era of self-sustaining learning environments, at a time when learning can happen everywhere, the space where formal learning takes place cannot be overlooked.  There are many factors to take into consideration when designing spaces for learning, schools and whole campuses. In the case of FLS, the inherent challenge is that in most cases the design is given with the space and few schools actually employ an interior designer. Even if they do, the problem is not solved as the core design issue in teaching is not actually architectural, but educational. In my humble opinion we tend to consider the wrong factors (how many students can I fit in the classroom), rather than the real issue which is what kind of teaching this space can accommodate. Therefore, when looking at the design of learning spaces we need to be fully conscious that the physical environment can determine the type of teaching and facilitate or limit learning.

 

Pre-existing notions and new evidence

There is a multitude of pre-existing notions that determine our taste and our decisions when we design the interior of our school. Some of these notions are related with our own learning and that used to be rather uncomfortable. If we look back in the past, classrooms were bare, sanitized, bleak, with desks and chairs bolted to the floor. The heavy wooden furniture, even when unbolted, could not be moved without a lot of effort and noise. These classrooms had one focal point and that was the blackboard and later one the whiteboard or the IWB.

 

A classroom like this seems ‘normal’, if not a bit monastic and deprived of technology and colour. It does not challenge our notions of what the roles in education are and how learning happens. However, if we consider the new evidence about how we learn, we will realize that we might have opted to house learning where it does not happen. Firstly, we learn when affective filter factors are low which apart from the climate in the classroom, which is determined predominantly by the rapport between the teacher and the learners, also includes the warmth, the comfort of the place and the sense of belonging it gives off. All of these factors play an active part in lowering affective filter factors. In order for this to happen, learners need to take ownership of their learning space. Secondly, we learn through the interaction with the material. This interaction can be personal (study, take notes) but it becomes even more powerful when it is a shared, social experience. Therefore, we learn via our interaction with others (teacher, classmates). Finally, human beings strive for colour, light, and sensory stimulations. This means that the wall decorations of a classroom should not be just any poster for the entire year or the whole time the school has been around. Posters, wall decorations of any kind should have a meaningful purpose. They may be part of what we are doing or discussing these days, general guidelines for speaking or writing, frequently made mistakes or lists with useful language. Once again, it is important to stress that placing a poster that has nothing to do with the material or the level of the students does not help much. The walls of the classroom need to put forward a strong message and that should be that this is a place where students and teachers work together to co-discover and co-construct knowledge. 

 

 Non-verbal messages

Classrooms have the uncanny ability to give the shortest, most complete X-ray an external observer needs to grasp the school’s true ideology regarding learning and its attitude towards learners and teachers. Let us see how this happens. Most FLS classrooms, despite the many changes that have occurred in the recent years, have been fitted with IWB of some kind, but they still feature the same seating arrangement, rows of desks (of all sizes and shapes) with chairs (often attached to them), facing the focal point which is the whiteboard next to which we can find the teacher’s desk. The non-verbal cues conveyed to the students are as follows:

  1. You are here to listen (and learn- because learning happens through listening for all).
  2. There is one focal point: the whiteboard and the teacher because that’s where your learning comes from, not from collaboration or interaction with other people. You need to listen carefully as the teacher presents, demonstrates and explains.
  3. Your comfort does not matter. You are comfortable enough, at any rate.

This last point can also be related with a rather ‘Spartan’ attitude to learning, according to which learners who are too comfortable and relaxed will fall asleep and stop paying attention. The same fear has led educators to think that large windows tend to destruct student’s attention, instead of thinking that natural light benefits learning. After 5 years of teaching at Sibford School, a school with huge windows and amazing view I can vouch that the least of my class management problems stems from the big windows.

 

Built Pedagogy

In 2002, Torin Monahan, Professor of Communication at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published a paper under the title Flexible space and built pedagogy: Emerging IT embodiments. The aim of this article was to present the architectural embodiment of educational philosophy. Through this we can see a new paradigm emerging in the design of learning spaces, schools and even campuses. According to what has come to be called built pedagogy, we should aim to create learning spaces that reflect our determination for the students’ active participation and the co-construction of knowledge in the environment of the school. We should strive to create learning spaces that facilitate deeper and richer learning.  Some of the features of these new, emerging learning spaces are the following:

  1. Flexibility so that the learning space can accommodate the learning of people with different body types, ages, learning styles and unfortunately disabilities. It is interesting to notice that eight out of ten Greek FLS would be unable to accommodate a disabled student. Flexibility also denotes the break with the past and tradition, thus the need for the formation of new paradigm. Instead of dedicating a special classroom to computer assisted learning as we used to in the 90s, working with technology becomes part of any lesson, aided by the presence of IWB and by BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology), the idea that students can use their own portable devices for research and learning purposes. Finally, the furniture in these new learning spaces needs to be moveable, so as to facilitate different modes of learning without the class wasting time or energy
  2. Comfort: Classrooms need to be designed ergonomically taking the (new) body size of the average learner into consideration. Many interesting types of individual desks have come on the market. Fitted with wheels, they allow students to sit comfortably and change focus from groupwork to the teacher and back to pairwork without making any noise. Light is also an aspect of comfort which is also related with arousal and the levels of exhaustion learners experience during long lessons.
  3. Sensory Satisfaction: although most Greek FLS have made an effort to create a warm learning environment (even on a shoestring), few have realized how important the walls of the classroom are. These can be used as notice boards, as halls of fame where the best work is exhibited (this can also work as a motivation strategy to get students to work harder) and as an aid to memory and learning.
  4. Technological Support: It is part of the expectations the current generation has that technology should work flawlessly and fast. Since technology is here to stay, we should realize that computer systems and networks, IWB etc. all need to be maintained and be kept up to date, otherwise we are just paying lip service to using technology in our teaching. Fast WiFi networks available to the students and a specific school-based email for all (students and teachers) are the basis for an organized, safe, digital communication.  
  5. Decentralisation: Based on the old assumptions we harbor, classrooms need a focal point. If table and chairs are heavy and hard to move, it is necessary that they all face the whiteboard so that all students can see clearly. In the modern learning spaces with the light-weight, movable furniture and the idea that learning does not ‘derive’ from the teacher, but from the interaction of the learners, the teacher and the material, the teacher really does not have to be in the centre of the classroom. The teacher does need his/her own space, though, and I am sad to note here that many schools give tiny desks to teachers, immediately putting forward the idea that teachers should not work productively in their classrooms and they should not carry too much stuff with them.

 

Conclusion

In this article we have examined the new paradigm and how new learning spaces differ from traditional classrooms. In the next article we will discuss ways in which we can remodel our school and create a more modern learning space at a low budget.

 

References

Dudney,G. Hockly, N. et al. (2013) Digital Literacies, Pearson, Harlow, UK

Du, Xiaoyan. (2009) The affective filter in second language teaching. Asian Social Journal [online] Vol 5, No 8, August 2009. Available at www.ccsenet.org [Accessed 22nd December 2017]

Monahan, T. (2002) Flexible space and Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT embodiments. [online]. Available from: www.torinmonahan.com [Accessed 21st Dec. 2017]

Oblinger. D. (ed) (2006) Learning Spaces [online]. Available from: www.educase.edu [Accessed 21st Dec. 2017]  

 

Maria Sachpazian BA education / RSA dip/tefl (hons)  is the Academic and Managing Director of Input on Education a company which provides academic, business support and consultancy to Foreign Language Schools. Maria is also a part-time lecturer at City College, the International Faculty of the University of Sheffield and an EFL teacher at the Straight Up Markoyannopoulou schools. Since March 2016 she is also the Chairperson of TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece.  www.input.edu.gr           This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.    


 

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