From classroom to learning space

Sometimes a little avocation creeps into your life that you might not notice until someone else points it out for you. Maybe there’s something that you have to get done so you take care of it, and that leads to another something or other that needs getting done, and pretty soon you know a little bit about it and find you enjoy it. You might call it an interest, something short of a hobby.

I’ve developed an interest in what learning spaces look like. Not until a colleague pointed this out, though, did I step back and take some time to think about it. Had I become, in a small way, an interior decorator for the school? 

This past year I began moving a new program into a two-floor, six room building that we used to call the Math Chalet, because it has a Swiss Chalet look about it and math classes were taught here. Over the past year we turned it into the Edge Chalet to host some of our alternative programs.

I didn’t want the classrooms to look like classrooms, so room by room I removed the desks and chairs with furniture you might expect to find in your house. In fact, to keep costs down, I used a number of pieces of furniture that I got from houses, others and even my own. I aimed for a look that was less school, more house. What I didn’t know about interior design I made up for by simply eliminating the uniformity of the typical school classroom.

I started with one room, purchasing some furniture in pairs: small wooden kitchen tables with matching chairs, two blue armchairs, two tables with drawers. I set the room up symmetrically, with a view across the balcony at Le Chamossaire, a Swiss Alp which gives the room a breathtaking view.

A carpet and a bookstand split the two halves of the room. Using pictures of my own family and other household miscellania I made the room feel homey. I left the whiteboards in the room, holdovers from the math department. Behind the door I tucked a small fridge and a coffee maker. 

The room is now my office, and the office of visiting scholars, when they are on campus. It can also be a breakout room for the other learning spaces (I can’t call them classrooms, they just aren’t that) in the building. We meet here with student advisory groups, too. The room holds up to ten people comfortably.

Gradually the other rooms in our new Edge Chalet lost their classroom look to more welcoming hangout spaces. A building in town slated to be torn down gave its last furniture away one weekend. A colleague and I collected a worn wooden cupboard, full of dust and character, as well as a long red farm table and some benches. We matched these pieces with some more modern furniture, hung pictures on the wall to help the farmhouse look, and we were done. Another room became a convenient spot for me to store my old roll top desk, which didn’t fit in my new apartment anyway, and a large chest of drawers. That room had a piano, which gives the room lots of character. I hung pictures from two former art teachers and added maps to the wall (and in the cubbies of the desk) to give the room a travel theme. As an international school teacher, I had plenty of other knick knacks for decoration, including gifts from visitors.

You can tell I enjoy doing this. And when I look back, I’ve been enjoying it for a while. I just hadn’t noticed. A few years ago I took a skinny, underused classroom in a different building and turned it into what is now called the Research Lounge. I love that name. It’s also a living room and café sort-of-space with rugs and plants. It is a place for teachers and students to be that is calm, respectful, and less schooly. 

And before the research lounge, a colleague and I took two large rooms in yet another building and created a large makerspace. I remember getting inspired during a conference at the International School of Brussels. They had recently remodeled with lots of thinking space, I think they called it. So we brought in high and low tables, stools and couches, rolling whiteboards which doubled as space dividers, large screens, a sound system, and plenty of storage. We also had plants and decent wall decorations.

Why is the appearance of a learning space so important?

Most simply, because it is a place we spend time in. Better that it be aesthetic and comfortable than boring and uncomfortable. Maybe a test would be this: if you were designing an office for yourself – a place where you were going to spend a lot of time – would you design a standard classroom? Or something more inviting?

School reformers talk plenty about moving away from a factory model. Because school reform is notoriously sluggish, I imagine that reformers would like every possible advantage to help shift the way teaching and learning plays out. Here’s where I think the learning space really matters. Consider school environments that you are familiar with. Are most of the spaces filled with tables/desks and chairs? Is there an obvious power center of the room, probably in the front, perhaps filled with the teacher’s items and a space to address the whole class? Does the orientation of the room assume a specific teaching style? Does a whiteboard figure predominantly?

All of those things matter. They affect how we think about teaching and learning. And they do it perniciously. We don’t really notice how the space is affecting us because it’s just there. But the space matters.

Several years ago there was some excitement at our school because we took whiteboards to the next level, straight past Smartboards to short-throw projectors aimed at specially prepared walls which allow manipulation of the computer image through touch, as well as drawing on the walls with markers and hanging materials with magnets. Some teachers use them, some don’t, results are a little mixed, but of this I am certain: the set up reinforces, for all but the most careful teacher, a classroom of stand and deliver. The set up also makes the classrooms quite schoolish looking, since the blank white wall becomes the focus of the room and a natural station for the teacher, the teacher’s desk, the place for lecturing … you see what I mean.

Now that I think about it, classroom design started for me with my first administrative job, leading German immersion language teachers at Concordia Language Villages in the early 1990s. Folks were a little surprised when I removed the tables from the classrooms one summer. You can’t come to summer camp to learn through language immersion and then sit at a table with books and pens! Or at least that’s what my young idealistic self thought. (There may actually be some merit to the idea: I’ve noticed a few posts from teachers using TPRS – Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling – that eschew classroom tables, too). 

At any rate, if, when you were picturing classrooms in your mind, you found it hard to think of examples that don’t look like traditional school, you might ask yourself how far from the factory model teaching and learning can really hope to be. And if you have even a little interest in interior design, the next time you set up a classroom, make it just a little less school and a little more home, a unique spot, built perhaps for just a bit more creativity and collaboration over uniformity and competition. 

2 thoughts on “From classroom to learning space”

  1. I really enjoyed this article Paul. Especially about the conversion of the narrow room into a “Research Lounge” for students and teachers to find solace. Thank you for sharing your blog space with me.

    1. I’ve found that every time we’ve created informal, welcoming places for students and faculty, they get used. There’s just a lot to be said about bringing people together for informal conversation and connections.

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