Rethinking the Classroom Space

Every year in my classroom I struggle to feel comfortable with the space I have. I don’t mean that it’s not enough space, but I despise the look and layout of the space. Ask most people to reflect on their time spent learning in schools and I bet they have images of hard, wooden desks in rows with a white board and some ugly concrete walls illuminated by stark florescent lighting. Why is it that schools feel more like prisons on the inside instead of inspiring learning spaces?

I know I’m not the only one who complains about this, but something has to be done. This past week reminded me of that when one of my classes decided to rearrange the desks in my classroom. It was inspiring to me that the students took charge and spent time to plan out a new arrangement. Then, in the middle of teaching, we reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of the layout. It was an interesting discussion because it made me realize how imperfect the space was and how much happier the students could be from such a simple fix.

The ideal learning space needs to be functional, yet flexible. The flexibility is the key ingredient that’s missing right now. The furniture in schools is only used for one purpose and it’s limiting to the environment. It frustrates me that I can’t turn which way I use the projector; or that I can’t put the desks into groups; or that I don’t have storage for different supplies; or that I can’t change the overall look of the space day-to-day. Students–and teachers too–need change and control over their environment. As a teacher, I want the opportunity to engage students in different ways: from moving around the room to using comfortable seating to making functional work spaces. 

This past week I toured the Cambridge Innovation Center which got me thinking more about re-designing my classroom. The CIC is a startup incubator that provides an awesome workspace for employees. The open concept gives employees flexible spaces in which to collaborate, but there are also private booths to work. All the walls are glass and whiteboard but things are still sound proof. It’s an environment that stimulates creativity and promotes collaboration. There’s even a cafe with stocked fridge as well as a ping pong table! Environments like this are commonplace among all innovative technology and engineering companies.

I also read an article recently that featured an interesting workspace. Imagine open work areas in schools that looked like this…

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Now, I understand that schools can’t be exactly like these innovative workspaces, but I do believe there are important things to learn from them and apply to school environments. Just from the reaction of my students this week after a few simple furniture rearrangements, I really wish I could overhaul my classroom. But the transformation goes beyond my walls. I think the most important change that schools could implement quickly and easily would be to create workspaces for teachers and administrators that more resemble the modern lifestyle. If there were open, collaborative spaces for the adults to meet, brainstorm, and model authentic learning to their students it could inspire major changes school-wide. As I walk down the halls of my school every day, I can see the potential in re-designing the prison-like environment. Now I have to figure out a way to make that happen…

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