Research and experience reveals that there is a divide between what is known about the learning experience, and the spaces that are built to support them. This has prompted the exploration of new approaches to designing spaces that better support the learning experience.
While more progressive institutions are enthusiastically jumping on board the Innovative Learning Environment (ILE) train, there are still too many taking a cookie-cutter or slapdash approach to the design of learning environments. The time is ripe to break this mould, but schools need to understand the critical elements of an effective learning environment and how to achieve the best result for their spaces and ultimately, their students.
Cornerstone College is an excellent example of a school adopting a more progressive approach to education. Resource Furniture was involved in the design of their $8 million middle school learning centre, which was the feature of a 2014 InDaily article titled, ‘Designing “progressive” schools’. Also referred to as “Paideia”, the centre was described as featuring “alternative furniture, wide open spaces, flexible, interconnected classrooms and a ‘reading tree’”.
Comments made by Julie Sampson, learning director at Cornerstone College indicated a view that the role of the classroom is fast moving in the opposite direction of past assumptions.
“Traditional teaching … in some respects, is about spoon-feeding the kids,” she said, and suggested that “feeding them information” and having them “regurgitate” it for an exam hardly encourages critical thinking.
“There’s a shift in education [where] teachers are not the holders of all knowledge anymore, because kids have got access to the internet.”
As such, the impact of everything from technologies, pedagogies, and yes, furniture, needs to be examined when tackling the design of a new learning environment.
Often, in a rush to meet deadlines, schools will purchase furniture on a whim and find that they are left with a hodgepodge collection of products, which don’t suit their space or meet the future needs of the school. Hence, space planning is perhaps the most important stage of the process, no matter the size of the project. A carefully considered approach is essential to the success of any new education space.
Designing a new learning environment without due consideration and planning can make teachers’ jobs even more difficult, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of educators. For example, implementing open plan teaching spaces without considering the impact of acoustics may result in teachers needing to raise their voices to be heard in class. By considering the space and its peculiarities, poor outcomes can be avoided. In some cases, a mix of traditional and progressive design may work best rather than an extreme approach.
An effective learning space will be versatile and flexible enough to support different modes of teaching and learning, for both individuals and groups. The days of teachers lecturing to classes seated at rows of desks are fast becoming outdated. Although this approach may always play a role in the overall mix, it will not be the only mode of teaching. For example, research has shown that combining a mix of flexible desking options and breakout soft seating is effective because it allows classes to adapt their layout to accommodate both a lecture-style configuration and a group collaboration layout. As such, desks that nest together to form interesting and functional work spaces, yet also pull apart to support individual work, are ideal.
Breakout spaces are another increasingly popular trend in progressive learning environments. A central breakout space is removed from the main classroom and allows students to meet informally and work on projects collaboratively. This type of space is proving to work as well in offices as it does in schools. Furniture plays a big role in creating comfortable and inviting breakout spaces and soft seating systems can provide plenty of colour, comfort and flexibility.
You could say that we are stifling children’s creativity by teaching them in mundane spaces. To develop the entrepreneurial and problem-solving skills of our younger generations, and to prepare them for a world with jobs that don’t even exist yet, “we need to break away from the traditional and strive to design spaces that are more flexible, encourage collaboration and adapt with changing technology”, says Scott Reed, Resource Furniture director.
The primary goal should be to create environments with features that support the learning needs of this generation, now and into the future.