7 Disciplines of Classroom Design: Supporting a Vibrant Learning Environment

Chad P. Wick, president and CEO of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation states, “You can’t expect children to learn 21st-century skills in schools built for the 1950s. We need schools designed for 21st-century success.”[1] Some would argue the meaning and function of the learning environment, as related to the traditional brick and mortar school, is minimal. Projects such as the widely successful Hole-in-the-wall Project, where students accomplish amazing levels of learning in far from ideal surroundings, suggests that students learn in any setting, and to a certain extent that is quite true.[2]

Learning can take place anywhere. Educators are aware that learners are not empty vessels, but come to school with understandings derived from their wider lives. Unexpected informal learning can take place in all sorts of apparently unlikely situations. So does the detail of the physical surroundings provided by schools in fact matter?[3]

Well, yes, those surroundings do matter – and there is a great deal of research behind that conclusion. However, research also shows the best learning environments are not traditional lecture halls and factory-style rooms with rows and rows of desks.

During the 1990s, the rise of constructivism and its associated theories in psychology and education represented a paradigm shift for educators and instructional designers to a view of learning that is necessarily more social, conversational, and constructive than traditional transmissive views of learning. These contemporary learning theories are based on substantively different ontologies and epistemologies than were traditional transmissive views of learning.[4]

Thus, the most meaningful and functional learning environments today foster and support students in the process of constructing their own learning. Students are not just empty vessels awaiting knowledge and wisdom transmitted from the teacher. They are active learners.

Learning environments contribute to the school’s objectives when they are student rather than teacher-centered.[5] Unfortunately, despite what research has shown for years, and although a vast majority of educators would readily agree with student-centered school plant design, the transmissive style of instruction by a teacher is still the predominant form of instruction in the majority of schools and universities today.[6]

A fundamental and informed philosophy of education today affirms that learners construct knowledge. Information may be transferred through the traditional lecture or broadcast method, but knowledge is built by the individual learner. Unfortunately, many within education still embrace the following:

[Traditional] educators believe that improving learning is a matter of more effectively communicating ideas to learners by improving the clarity of the message. The assumption of most educational enterprises has always been that if teachers communicate (transmit) to students what they know, then students will know it as well. Teaching is a process of conveying ideas to students. Good teaching means more effective communication. The assumption has been that because teachers have studied ideas longer, they understand them better and are therefore better able to communicate (transmit) them. Epistemologically, it assumes knowledge is an object that can be conveyed and owned by individuals, which assumes that students can come to know the world as the teacher does.[7]

This approach to learning ignores the volumes of learning theory research over recent decades. “Since about 1990, education and psychology have witnessed the most substantive and revolutionary changes in learning theory in history.”[8] Over the past thirty years, we have learned that minimal learning takes place through transmission. “Rather learning is willful, intentional, active, conscious, constructive practice that includes reciprocal intention – action – reflection activities.”[9]

There is another educational philosophy, which directly influences the learning environment’s meaning and function. Learning is primarily a social process. This philosophy recognizes that students are social creatures needing feedback to validate their beliefs. The environments that support the greatest amount of learning are those encouraging and supporting social communication. Rather than invest in traditional classroom settings, which were designed for monologs, trusted school leaders design school environments for dialogs. School leaders demonstrate Contribution by practicing the discipline of ensuring that every area of the school campus supports dialogs for learning. How significant is this?

The quickest and simplest way to help someone understand its significance is to ask the question, “How significant is your house or apartment?” Anyone can instantly answer the question. Everyone recognizes the high importance and value of living in a clean, healthy home environment functional to meet the living standards we desire, and which reflects our values. The same holds true with school buildings and campus facilities. They are home environments for students, faculty, and staff a large part of their waking hours. Yet, “planning and managing school facilities remains one of the most neglected areas of school administration.”[10] That lack of planning and management often results in tremendous levels of teacher distraction; drawing their focus away from teaching. Many school leaders have never completed a course on the essential topics of school plant design and management.[11] This should concern school owners, boards, and all stakeholders in light of other realities such as:

  • School buildings are multimillion dollar investments

  • Administrators are expected to have the requisite knowledge and skills to facilitate planning and manage buildings once constructed

  • Many existing buildings are inadequate in light of changing curricula, instructional methods, and building codes

  • Decades of neglect, poor planning, cost-cutting, and deferred maintenance have contributed to the current crisis

  • Improperly planned schools could become obsolete well before their intended life spans[12]

Trusted school leaders understand the potential distractions inherent within a school campus, and protect teachers from them. These leaders understand the significance of the entire school campus as a learning environment, which supports the work of learning – rather than detracting from it. They are familiar with the research on this subject – especially in educational psychology and sociology. That research conclusively shows the direct connection between learning environment and learning.

For many of us, the design of our physical environment is as invisible as the air we breathe or the sun that shines — we just don’t think about it. These invisible elements tend to draw our attention only when they are missing or obviously deficient. But make no mistake, the physical environment in which you spend your time, whether you consciously realize it or not, matters a great deal.[13]

Intentional classroom design is core to supporting a vibrant and effective learning environment. “Learning theorists and researchers have come to understand that we don’t so much teach as we create an environment in which people can learn. Learning facilitators design experiences and activities allowing people to grasp new concepts, learn required knowledge, and gain needed skills.”[14] The foundational framework to the many facets of classroom design, supporting the greatest level of actual learning, is that schools must be student-centered; rather than teacher or even technology-centered.

Building on the framework of student-centered learning environments, trusted school leaders exercise the following 7 Disciplines of Classroom Design:

  1. Supporting and fostering healthy relational connections between students and teachers[15]

  2. Facilitating opportunities for frequent practice and active learning (i.e. students engaged in learning activities as opposed to passive instruction)[16]

  3. Supporting both project-based and problem-based learning, where students directly apply their learning to real life[17]

  4. Supporting self-regulated learning that recognizes students as individuals developing at varying paces[18]

  5. Encouraging and developing learning communities, where students support each other[19]

  6. Inviting and attractive entrance and exit areas, fluid circulation, lighting and color[20]

  7. Seating that is age appropriate and supports learning activities and engagement[21]

As stated earlier, if done well, many of these elements are invisible to the casual observer, and perhaps even the learner – but each facet of classroom design that receives intentional consideration and facilitation contributes to greater student engagement and higher levels of learning.

Finally, consider this: “There are about 10 billion neurons in the brain and about 1,000 trillion connections. The possible combination of connections is about 10 to the one-millionth power. An enriched environment can contribute up to a 25% increase in the number of brain connections.”[22]

© 2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved

[1] O’Donnel Wiklund Pigozzi and Bruce Mau, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning (New York: Abrams, 2010), 12-14, Kindle.

[2] Hole-In-The-Wall Education Project, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com.

[3] Pamela Woolner, The Design of Learning Spaces (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), 1.

[4]  David Jonassen and Susan Land, Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2012), 187-190, Kindle.

[5] Susan M. Land and Michael J. Hannafin, “Student-Centered Learning Environments,” Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments (2000): 1-23.

[6] C. Lambert, “Twilight of the Lecture,” Harvard Magazine (1990): 23-27.

[7] Jonassen and Land, Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments, 198-207, Kindle.

[8] Ibid., 215-216, Kindle.

[9] Ibid., 225-226, Kindle.

[10] Theodore Kowalski, Planning and Managing School Facilities (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002), 47-48, Kindle.

[11] Anthony H. Normore, “Socializing school administrators to meet leadership challenges that doom all but the most heroic and talented leaders to failure,” International Journal of Leadership in Education 7, no. 2 (2004): 107-125.

[12] Kowalski, Planning and Managing School Facilities, 47-48, Kindle.

[13] Lina Zane, Pedagogy and Space: Design Inspirations for Early Childhood Classrooms (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2015), 217-220, Kindle.

[14] Catherine Lombardozzi, Learning Environments by Design (Danvers, MA: ATD Press, 2015), 211-213, Kindle.

[15] Robert C. Pianta, Megan W. Stuhlman, and Bridget K. Hamre, “How schools can do better: fostering stronger connections between teachers and students,” New Directions for Youth Development 93, (2002): 91-107.

[16] Hannele Niemi, “Active learning—a cultural change needed in teacher education and schools,” Teaching and Teacher Education 18, no. 7 (2002): 763-780.

[17] Jane L. David, “Project-Based Learning,” Educational Leadership 65, no. 5 (2008): 80-82.

[18] Barry J. Zimmerman, “Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Achievement: An Overview,” Educational Psychologist 25, no. 1 (1990): 3-17.

[19] Vincent Tinto, “Learning better together: The impact of learning communities on student success,” Higher Education Monograph Series 1, (2003): 1-8.

[20] Caroline A. Guardino and Elizabeth Fullerton, “Changing behaviors by changing the classroom environment,” Teaching Exceptional Children 42, no. 6 (2010): 8-13.

[21] Rachel Wannarka and Kathy Ruhl, “Seating arrangements that promote positive academic and behavioral outcomes: A review of empirical research,” Support for Learning 23, no. 2 (2008): 89-93.

[22] Pigozzi and Mau, The Third Teacher, 29-31, Kindle.


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