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Design Help for Those Who Can’t Sit Still in the Classroom

In an earlier post, I wrote about Johnny, a student who couldn’t sit still and for whom I proposed a curriculum that included less time in his chair, more time spent on projects and out of the classroom, and the involvement of more outside expertise.

As many of us devote our time to considering potential curricular changes to help empower this generation of learners, there’s also a great team of people considering the environments in which people learn and work. Today I watched a wonderful webinar presented by Inside Higher Ed, called “Beyond the Classroom: Changing Culture Through Environment.” Representatives from Steelcase Education, The University of Southern Mississippi, and betauniversity shared examples of the types of design thinking and projects that focus on making space more effective for learners and employees.

Many of the examples shared during this webinar focused on higher ed and corporate environments. We can draw a few simple rules from the design thinking that goes into making these places more conducive to thinking (learning and working) and apply them to the ongoing evolution in PK-12 educational practices that we see today.

  1. Make the space adaptable. The range of activities that take place during any one day requires different types of interactions between the teacher and the class, between the teacher and any one student, and between pairs and groups of students. Furniture that can be moved around can help facilitate this range of activities.

  2. Create zones within the classroom for different types of engagement. Even while accounting for flexibility in desk configuration, for example, there is a good case for creating zones of learning to facilitate some of the major interactions that take place each day. We’ve talked about blended learning design before, where the curriculum includes individual, group, and full-class activities. The classroom itself should have spaces where such activities can take place.

  3. Allow for ambient stimuli to help the mind wander. I’m lucky enough to have my desk in a room with a window with a view of the Hudson. I get up many times a day to look out that window while working through different design and business challenges. If you’re not fortunate enough to share my view, or that of the treetops, or anything natural, then a small space with comfortable seating and pictures of peaceful environments might do the trick.

  4. Democratize the sharing of information. While removal of the “sage from the stage” has resulted in less lecturing and more engagement between teacher and learner, the physical placement of whiteboards and visual displays within the classroom environment can allow for equity amongst the group and encourage collaboration further. The height of such displays and the group’s access to them can make a difference in the learning experience.

  5. Vary the types of seating and provide opportunities to work standing up or even reclining. Just as most students don’t feel comfortable sitting in rows all day long, neither do they benefit from the stiff wooden desk that fill most classrooms today. A sofa, some bean bags, chairs that rotate to allow multitasking are just a few alternatives that may contribute to clearer thinking and more engagement.

Thanks again to Inside Higher Ed and particularly to Andrew Kim from Steelcase Education for the insight. You can check out the hashtag #powerofplace on Twitter for more on this topic.

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on the application of design to positive impacts on today’s evolution in education.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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