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Creativity, Education, Teaching

Design Departure: Do We Need New Classrooms?

Empty Classroom

flickr photo by mklingo

I had the pleasure of spending the morning, with my daughter, at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix.  For someone who works at the junior high school level, it was fascinating to watch primary and pre-school aged children engaged in activities, explorations and imaginative role play.  There was a lot of fun being had, but there was also a lot of learning going on.  The museum’s mission reads as follows:

Acting on the principle that learning is a joy, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix’s mission is to engage the minds, muscles and imaginations of children and the grown-ups who care about them.

Engaging minds.  Those of us in education realize there are inherent challenges to really “hooking” kids as active participants in the educational process–especially as they get older.  As I observed (and in some cases participated) at the Children’s Museum I was struck by the importance of physical aesthetics as a component of engagement. Kids, and adults, wanted to pick things up, play, create, problem solve and imagine–due in large part to the structure and design of the museum.

When it comes to classroom environment, elementary schools–especially in the primary grades–get things right. When I walk into my daughter’s classroom, it feels safe, inviting and most importantly, stimulating.  The walls are covered with student work, there are book shelves displaying a variety of reading materials, a hamster is on display at the back of the classroom, a reading area–complete with faux palm fronds, bean bags and pillows–is set aside in a quiet corner.  Even as an adult, it feels engaging–a place I would like to hang out.  Now, I don’t have empirical evidence of this, but I feel pretty safe in saying that this type of classroom environment diminishes as students get older–to the point that many junior high and high school classrooms are little more than a whiteboard, collection of desks and sprinkling of meaningless content posters.  In many cases, classroom decoration, bulletin boards, and student work displays are dismissed as “fluff”–too elementary for older kids.

Why does this happen?  Does are need for an aesthetically stimulating environment diminish as we age?  If you are thinking that is a possibility, consider vacation destinations–given a choice, are you headed to central Kansas or Hawaii?  Even as adults, we are drawn to environments that stimulate our senses.  Not only do aesthetics matter…they play an important role in engaging students in the learning process.

Even going beyond how classrooms look, we need to invest more time and consideration into the physical set-up of our learning environments. Excuse me for saying this, but many classrooms are about as disengaging and detrimental to inquiry based learning as they could possibly be–bare walls, desks in rows facing a definitive front of the classroom–maintaining the teacher as the central figure in the learning process.  If we really want to make lasting changes to our teaching methodologies, we also need to invest time and energy into the design of our learning environments. Two interesting examples of innovative classroom environments are the School of One, in New York City, and the d.School at Stanford University.  Both are radical departures from the traditional classroom–designed to enhance hands-on, collaborative learning.

The irony in all of this, is that the Children’s Museum of Phoenix is housed in the old Monroe School building–once considered a model for school architecture.  A former school was the perfect place for the museum–they just knocked down walls, added artwork, created open spaces and added a bunch of windows.  Hmmm.  Perhaps departing from our current classroom design is worth consideration.

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About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Design Departure: Do We Need New Classrooms?

  1. I completely agree! I’m a kindergarten teacher and work so hard to constantly change up my classroom to make it the most functional and warm environment possible. It has to be condusive to learning, yet fun! But you’re exactly right, this changes as soon as the kids hit middle school. Why do you think upper level teachers do not spend as much time on their classrooms? How can we change attitudes about this?

    Posted by halfwayto50 | January 18, 2011, 3:59 am
  2. This is a very thought provoking. I’m a high school Biology and middle school environmental science teacher and my current classroom is as you described it: whiteboard, desks (well actually tables) pointing a definitive front of the classroom with a teacher-centered focus. I believe in inquiry and project-based learning with the students as the focal point, but I often feel that the students and I continue to fall back on the old teacher centered model.

    As I read your post, I started imagining ways to change up my classroom set-up to inspire a more engaging and stimulating place for learning. I will consider your ideas as I look re-invent my teaching and make learning more meaningful for my students.

    Posted by Nicole Primeau | January 18, 2011, 8:14 am
  3. Great post and something I have been playing around with for the last 6 months. I’ve been modeling my room on thd mythic archetypal learning spaces of wateringhole, campfire and cave. Check out my blog for some photos and descriptions of what I’ve done and why!!
    The kids love it – other teachers are following suit!!
    Bianca 🙂

    Posted by Bianca | January 19, 2011, 3:30 am
  4. As a language teacher without a classroom, I find myself struggling with this daily. I love colour and posters and all the classroom “extras” that create a French bubble around the students. I love Bianca’s idea of modelling the classroom after ancient learning spaces! I am curious what subjects you teach?
    I think there are a number of reasons why middle and high school teachers don’t spend the same time decorating that junior school teachers do. I think the time goes to more intricate marking, in essays and projects. I love using rubrics, especially the departmental ones used at my school, but they take a TON of time to go through for each assignment.

    I think the other thing is that with young students, many assignments are heavily visual and wall-worthy. Whenever I try to add an artistic component to my French 10 writing assignments, they view it as added work. As well it is difficult to find posters and other visual resources that appeal to the older, more advanced students. My 10’s don’t need a poster that reminds them how to ask to go to the toilet in french…

    However, I do think that the set-up of a classroom can really influence the tone of the class and inspire greatness. I would love to see more examples of senior classes that really utilise their space to the max.

    Posted by leah | February 9, 2011, 2:31 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Fostering Effective Learning Environments « Molehills out of Mountains - April 27, 2011

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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