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Designing Classrooms That Engage Students

by Andrew Roush
classroom design

Classroom design can be a burden. It can feel like starting from scratch. A blank slate, or a blinking cursor, can be paralyzing. But with a little inspiration, you can apply thoughtful design that catalyzes learning in common spaces, libraries, and media centers, as well as in classrooms. Much of this stems from the notion of today’s always-connected students and the need to adapt learning spaces “designed with the assumption that students will have constant access to connectivity.”

Design thinking is a crucial skill, not only for students, but for educators as well. For teachers, administrators, and staff who love technology, this kind of thinking often shapes how we assess and use new tech. Is the user interface well-designed? Is this system intuitive? Does it reinforce learning goals? Does it work with other devices or software? Motivated educators use this kind of thinking, meant to encourage thoughtful consideration, planning, and use, to help their students achieve. But do we often apply this thinking to the physical world? To the non-digital space in which we engage students?

That thinking can be applied to physical learning spaces, too. Creative, flexible classrooms can encourage project-based learning and makerspaces. Consider how you want help students learn, and shape your space to those goals. Here’s some help getting started.

Get Active

Research suggests that simple ideas like flexible seating and classrooms that require students to move around can result in positive learning outcomes. While the links between good nutrition, exercise, and learning outcomes have been documented, it’s important to consider how to include this understanding in all aspects of education, including during classroom time.

In 2006, researchers at East Carolina University found that “classroom-based physical activity program was effective for increasing daily in-school physical activity and improving on-task behavior during academic instruction.” That physical activity doesn’t have to be limited to the playground or in P.E. The researchers also point out that “children who participate in short bouts of physical activity within the classroom have more on-task behavior, with the best improvement seen in students who are least on-task initially.”

Consider Accessibility

As an educator, you know that each student has unique needs and not everyone has the same physical needs. Understanding diverse needs can help create inclusive classrooms.

Technology can help improve access to learning, but it comes with challenges, notably in the availability of resources for schools and districts. Making each learning space open, modern, and accessible—both physically and mentally—can help improve that.

When it comes to tech, a checklist can help map out accessibility needs. Physical needs must comply with regulations and should also be evaluated carefully for each student’s needs. In eSchool News, teacher Danise Olague outlines three questions to consider when thinking about access:

  1. Is it easy to operate?
  2. Is the content understandable?
  3. Can the content be interpreted by assistive technologies?

These ideas can be applied to your classroom, too. Can students more around easily? Do they understand how the room is laid out, and how they can use it? How could the flow be improved?

Curriculum and lesson planning is also important to consider. American University has an extensive guide that highlights the connection between “universal design,” a notion initially applied only to physical spaces, and learning.

Integrate Space and Learning

Dr. Jennifer Jones is the head of New York’s Green Ivy Schools. She focuses on comfortable, engaging, and aesthetic learning space. She also focuses on integrating the space with the curriculum; having the space reflect and enforce the school’s learning goals. Here’s how a profile of Jones from EmergingEdTech.com describes it:

The classrooms are outfitted with wall to wall white boards for ‘surround sound learning,’ and the walls between classrooms are designed to fold away, to bring two class groups together to combine ideas. There are no desks, not even at the middle school level; only large tables for communal learning. Through her careful curating of the entire academic experience, Ms. Jones is closing the gap between what parents’ ideas of traditional teaching and education are and a new world of integrated education that includes real-world, hands-on applications and an atmosphere full of bright, beautiful colors.

Furthermore, thoughtfully designed classrooms can offer digital-native students the ability to not only use technology, but use it holistically in learning—that is, learning with tech and about it. In a 2015 TED Talk called “Reimagining Classrooms: Teachers as Learners and Students as Leaders,” Kayla Delzer notes the imperative to use classrooms as hotbeds for technology learning. “As educators,” she said, “it is now our job to be champions of digital citizenship.”

Helping students act responsibly in digital spaces, however, requires physical spaces that allow that learning and reflect the omnipresence of technology in our lives. It can be a daunting task. But coordination between stakeholders can help manage those changes.

Understanding District-Level Needs

Administrators and decision-makers have a large role in guiding how teachers, instructional coaches, media specialists, and librarians arrange and use spaces. Some districts are investing in making their learning spaces future ready one room at a time, while others are laying out district-level plans, securing grants, and organizing across campuses. Whatever their capability, districts should consider broad planning initiatives when it comes to interactive learning spaces, just the way they consider general facilities management.

Here’s how Ed Tech describes this movement toward modern learning environments:

In a modern learning environment, flexible classroom spaces organically integrate technology, helping teachers to better engage students and facilitate the mix of independent, small-group and whole-class learning that is now viewed as essential to student success.

In practice, this means space that facilitates the use of handheld devices, computers, and other technology in flexible, comfortable ways. Notably for administrators, this process includes understanding students needs, as well as working with stakeholders: “Whatever the project’s size, it’s important to include all relevant stakeholders during the design process, including the IT and facilities departments, school administrators, faculty and students, experts say.”

Classroom Design Resources

Photo: Daniel McCullough

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