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This question comes up a lot in conversation, and whenever I reflect on what designing new learning environments means for teachers and students....
In fact it was so intriguing to me that I did a small research project on one of the spaces last year. What I discovered was that the design contributed to changing expectations of teachers and students. The design said to them that they were now in a "professional" environment and so their work by inference should be more "professional."
Practically, what that meant to students was a more diligent approach to their work. They spent more time and thought on what they were engaged in and as a result the quality of their work improved. Teachers also felt a new impulse to engage with their students in a more "professional" manner. This meant in some ways, relinquishing control of the classroom and at the same time raising the performance bar for themselves and their students.
The flip side of this discussion is that space in and of itself WILL NOT produce more engaged students and teachers. One of the spaces that we transformed, an autoshop, is a painfully clear example. The space is an open, flexible space designed for interdisciplinary, collaborative work by teachers and students. The environment is constantly challenging those who enter it, almost as if it's speaking to them, "What are you going to do here...what are you going to do now....how will you take advantage of me...how will you use me....?" It's a very demanding learning space!
The response by the main teacher occupying the space was (after a year) to bring in traditional desks and set them up in rows facing a podium and portable whiteboard. He recreated a traditional classroom in an open, flexible, space design.
You could see the light go out of his student's eyes. They responded to the changed environment by exhibiting traditional student behaviour: lack of interest, acting out, indifference.
Space design in and of itself will never solve the current challenge of disengaged students, boring classes and poor student achievement. Space design can provide opportunity, a new impulse to achieve, a sense of caring and comfort, but without a rethinking of what happens inside the new learning environment, nothing will really change in fundamentally important ways.
New learning environments are flexible spaces that support the teaching and learning taking place within them. They are designed to parallel professional work environments.
They are not static places. Seating is not fixed. The orientation is not proscribed in one direction.
They contain a variety of technology tools to allow teachers and students multiple ways of communicating and exploring ideas. Spaces are visually stimulating, filled with light, multiuse, and comfortable environments in which to live and work.