Learner-Centered Spaces and Their Design

Image via MakerSpace

Image via MakerSpace

This is an excerpt from a chapter of the book “Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools,” published by ASCD in June.

The United States is home to nearly 100,000 public K–12 schools, which cover about 7.5 billion total square feet and 2 million acres of land (Bendici, n.d.). Approximately $2 trillion of net worth is invested in these school facilities, making this investment the largest educational investment in the nation. With the average age of schools in most districts between 30 and 50 years old, a large portion of this investment is now at risk due to age and lack of adequate maintenance (Nair, 2014). In the United States alone, in addition to the routine maintenance which totals hundreds of millions of dollars each year, over $12 billion is spent annually to renovate and build new schools (Abramson,  2012).

With their average age in mind, most of today’s learning spaces were originally designed and built for teacher-centric learning environments, coined by Alfie Kohn (1999) as the “cells and bells” model. In this analogy, students occupy cells until the bell rings and then move down the hall to another cell to do the same. The process repeats until freedom is granted at a particular time.

Sound familiar?

School buildings, the nation’s largest educational investment, are traditionally built for this “cells and bells” model. This type of design, however, is in direct contrast to what we know about how students learn, how tomorrow’s teachers will need to teach, and all that we understand from educational research about the impact of learning space design.

All you have to do is look around and see the amazing changes that are taking place in workspaces around the world. Many people have become enamored with what places such as Google and Pixar have done to improve working conditions for their employees—and these companies have exhibited great success while their workplaces are very unconventional. These types of workplaces have embraced the mantra that a creative work environment motivates and inspires innovation. These types of changes are both exciting and innovative. To get better results, they intentionally incorporated elements that foster creativity, collaboration, flexibility, and communication. This is more than a great concept that has become a reality in the workplace; we believe it should be common sense as well. Who wants to go to a job all day and sit in a hard chair at a desk in a creatively stifling cubicle, while being rained on by effervescing light? No one. That’s certainly not our idea of an ideal workspace, and we would wager that most school leaders feel the same way. As expectations related to producing better outcomes change, businesses have capitalized on a design trend that has led to improved results.

A Look at Research

 As the learning space has been studied, considerable evidence indicates an explicit relationship between the physical makeup of the environment and educational outcomes (Barrett & Zhang, 2009). In studying various pieces of literature on the effect of design, Barrett and Zhang began with the understanding that a “bright, warm, quiet, safe, clean, comfortable, and healthy environment is an important componentof successful teaching and learning” (p. 2), and they worked to identify the complexities behind the effect of each. Some aspects of the environment had significant effects, whereas other aspects were inconclusive. They went on to explore the effect of learning environments on student achievement, engagement, affective stage, attendance, and overall well-being. Their research, which we’ll explore further later in this chapter, suggested direct connections between the learning space and sensory stimuli among students. The evidence of such connections came from the medical understanding of how human sensory perception affects cognitive calculations. As such, Barrett and Zhang (2009) identify three key design principles:

  1. Naturalness: Hardwired into our brains, humans have the basic need for light, air, and safety. In this area, the impact of lighting, sound, temperature, and air quality are prevalent.
  2. Individualization: As individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized and, we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to environmental stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success.
  3. Appropriate Level of Stimulation: The learning space can offer the “silent curriculum” that affects student engagement levels. When designing the space, it’s important for educators not to overstimulate and thus detract students’ ability to focus but to provide enough stimuli to enhance the learning experience.

School leaders will often write off the notion of redesigning learning spaces due to financial constraints. However, research indicates that schools don’t need to spend vast amounts of money to make instructional improvements. In fact, changes can be made that have little to no cost yet make a significant difference. Examples include altering the classroom layout, designing classroom displays differently, and choosing new wall colors (Barrett et al., 2015). These research-based factors are minimal financial commitments that can help boost student outcomes.

There’s little disagreement that creating flexible spaces for physical activity positively supports student learning outcomes. However, it’s important to note that it’s not simply the physical layout of the room that affects achievement. Research also indicates that teachers, particularly those in the early elementary grades where young children have an immature ability to regulate focused attention, must also consider visual stimuli. One particular study investigated whether classroom displays that were irrelevant to ongoing instruction could affect students’ ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and learn the lesson content. Researchers placed kindergarten children in a controlled classroom space for six introductory science lessons, and then they experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the room. The findings indicated that the students were more distracted when the walls were highly decorated and, in turn, spent more time off task. In these environments, students demonstrated smaller learning gains than in cases where the decorations were removed (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014).

Avoiding the “Cemetery Effect”

These classrooms are suffering from what we’ll coin the “Cemetery Effect.” Side-by-side images of classrooms from the early 1900s and ones from today yield eerie similarities, even after more than 100 years of research and innovation. During the industrial era, when students were essentially trained to work in factories, “career readiness” meant preparing for jobs in which a worker would spend hours a day performing the same routine task, often even spending his or her entire career at the same company. In the one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get instructional model, an ability to regurgitate information was the key to success and a sufficient paradigm for that world of work.

But that world of work no longer exists in the United States.

The need to redesign our students’ learning environments is not simply an idea from the latest Pinterest board; it’s one of necessity. There are certainly times when students should work independently and quietly in their own spaces. However, for far too long, that’s been the main model of instruction in many classrooms. Schools and classrooms must transform from an industrial era model to one that is learner-centered, is personalized, and leverages the power of technology.

More on "Designing Learner-Centered Spaces" is available in Eric Sheninger and Thomas C. Murray's book, "Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow's Schools," published by ASCD.