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.