Really Smart Classrooms

I like to think that my institution is blessed with a student-centered ethos.  In other words, most of us here believe that active student learning is the most important thing in a classroom. 

We've even spent a bit of money leading workshops and bringing in guest speakers to help faculty move away from a professor-centered model in which the most important thing is students' passive absorption of the prof's content knowledge.  Making this change in pedagogy isn't easy.  Old models of what's supposed to happen in a university classroom die hard.

But what about our model of the classroom itself?

The last time we built a new classroom building on campus the architect met with the university community.  The only comment I made was that it was frustrating as an instructor to spend five minutes at the beginning of each class laboriously redesigning the room so it better facilitates teaching and learning, and then another five minutes at the end of class changing the room back to the old 19th century industrial-design model of row after row oriented toward the board and the lectern.

The architect's response was to drone on about all of the Smartboard tech we could expect.  "Besides," he said, "the tables and chairs will have wheels."
 
Aaaargh.  A Smartboard and some casters does not a smart classroom make. 

What I wanted was a more thorough examination of good design for good learning.  After all, a lot of really innovative design has gone into making work spaces that facilitate collaboration in professional settings.  Yet when we  build a classroom, all we get is the old "sage on the stage" model.  Sure we add in some high-tech doo-dads and smarten up the wall-coverings, but that's not much of a changed paradigm. 

To be sure, architects have contemporized their designs for art studios, rehearsal spaces, science labs, etc.  But the default model for the generic classroom remains the lecture hall.  And the rhetoric of a lecture hall is clear: what matters most in this room is the person standing upfront at the controls.  You students out there are to sit passively and soak up the wisdom.  You aren't the locus or the focus of what really matters here.

Good grief, nothing is more ripe for a thoughtful redesign than the general-purpose classroom, whose "cells with bells" design philosophy comes straight out of Frederick Taylor's early 20th century efficiency studies, which in turn created the industrial assembly-line.  Such an approach may have made sense when we were training people to do isolated tasks within fixed corporate systems, but they don't make sense today (a fact made evident by abandoned rust-belt manufacturing plants across the nation).

So I was happy to run across some architects and designers who are taking on this problem.  Prakash Nair in San Antonio has been doing work along these lines.  Indeed, his book Blueprint for Tomorrow collects and codifies some good design principles that have been shown to promote student learning.

If I were a paying client, here's what I'd ask from my architect:
  • I want to be able to transition from being in all-class mode to group work quickly and with as little effort as possible (360 degree swiveling chairs perhaps)?
  • I want to use nearly all the wall space for presentation of student work (not just the whiteboard, projector screen, etc., at the front).  Brainstorming notes, concept maps, in-class created work should be easy to post and dispose of.  I shouldn't have to spend my limited budget on giant sticky Post-It notes (or damage the drywall with masking tape and thumb tacks). 
  • Some natural light, please.
  • A usable, out of the way place to store backpacks, heavy coats, etc., one that allows students to keep their stuff nearby but out of the way (built-in under the chair storage perhaps?).
  • While we're at it, let's have a few small storage lockers where instructors could securely leave a few items in the classroom: some fresh dry-erase markers, a box of paper clips or a stapler (sweet heavens, a stapler!) a few pens, an extra copy of the text, some Kleenex, a bottle of Tylenol...  There's nothing worse than needing these things and not having them at hand.
  • Also, can we think up a way to eliminate the need for stumble-inducing extension or laptop cords?
  • Along the same lines, how about trash receptacles that are inset into the wall?
  • Padded seating (the mind can only absorb what the butt can endure).
  • And what about a way to quickly subdivide the room into even tinier spaces?  Some classrooms have retractable walls that allow two rooms to become one large room.  But what if I could make my normal one room into four little seminar rooms?  I'm thinking of retractable Japanese screens that are rolled up and ready to be pulled out from the center of each of the four walls.
  • I like to get students out of their seats to stake out positions physically on questions or issues:  "Those of you who agree with Freud go to this side of the room, those with Hume the other side.  Those who are unsure can stay in the middle.  Now start talking to those who agree with you.  What's the group consensus on why you are where you are?"  But how about  making the carpet color-coded into distinct areas that could mark off group positions?  What if the flooring contained a continuum of gradations that allowed students to arrange themselves by degrees of acceptance or rejection of an idea? 
  • Or what about work stations or long tables that could drop from the sidewalls like a Murphy bed when extra desktop area was needed and be quickly stowed away when more space was needed?
  • Here's an idea: lots of individual square or rectangular tables with flip-up curved wings that can be combined into a single oval seminar table.
  • Okay, let's get really radical.  I'm in seminar mode with students seated in a circle or around a big table and I want to show a brief video clip for discussion.  What if the chairs could lie back like car seats and we could see the clip on the ceiling?  That way the students with backs to the screen don't have to relocate or crane their necks.  Plus, let's use every surface in the room.  I know, I know.  Crazy idea.  People would go to sleep.  Still, it's a new idea.
Put simply, I want a general-purpose classroom that doesn't assume a single teaching style is the only purpose there is.   I want a room that can be transformed for lots of learning approaches, one that gives me options.  I'm no architect, of course, but I'd love to see what a good one could do working with educators on a redesign.

 Anything that blows up the lecture hall would be okay by me.

Comments

Anti-Dada said…
Great ideas. My favorites: 360-degree swiveling chairs (with perhaps desktops to swivel along with them); utilization of all wall space; NATURAL LIGHT! Floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights, curved windows transitioning from wall to ceiling, anything to give light and perhaps a decent view of foliage, a pond, anything but a parking lot. I don't think that would be distracting at all--I think it would invigorate the mind; padded seating, absolutely. In fact, combined with the video screen seating, how about those wonderful stadium seating chairs in newer cinemas (they can be on a swivel, too); retractable walls; Murphy-bed desks (!!!). All in all, great stuff.

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