By Doug Ward

Here’s a glimpse into the classroom of the future.

It’s huge, and I mean HUGE: big enough for a football field, a magical playground, a dig site for studying bones, and an area for playing with dogs, bears and dolphins. It has cool carpet and places for listening. The tables are spread out and you can choose among giant chairs, bouncy chairs and floating chairs. It has crayons, of course, but also drawers to hold skulls (from the dig site, no doubt) and a secret room. Best of all, it has a portal to a lake and a monorail that will take you anywhere.poster-8-garden

Are you on board? I was when I visited Paula Kahmann’s class at Rushton Elementary School in Shawnee, Kan., last week. Kahmann’s students are working on a project to design an ideal classroom, and they sought my advice on how to do that.

I did offer my input, although my philosophy of classroom design is fairly simple: A classroom should be flexible, but there is no perfect design. (Students wrote that down.) It should have movable tables and chairs, not individual desks. It should have good lighting (preferably natural light), whiteboards, electrical outlets, strong wi-fi, and a means of displaying digital screens. It should be easy to move around in, and it should be comfortable. That is, you should want to spend time there.

I explained only a few of those things because I didn’t want to be overly prescriptive. Nor did I want to go off on a tangent about the failings of traditional classrooms, which are little more than warehouses for instilling passivity than places for learning. (I didn’t say that.)

Rather, I wanted the students to approach their room with open minds and bubbling imaginations. Kahmann had done a great job of encouraging that in earlier class periods. Students had drawn pictures of what their ideal classroom might look like, and two by two they accompanied me to a bulletin board in the hallway and showed me. I’ve included some of those pictures in this post.

poster-1-paint-it-orange

One of my favorites included spare language that provided a poetic take on the world of learning:

I Would like Star.

I Would like plants.

I Would paint the Wall orange.

Students included many traditional elements in their classroom pictures and in our discussions. They thought an ideal classroom should have books, games, a snack bar, a bathroom, and a drinking fountain. It should also have places for listening, comfortable chairs, colored pencils and carpet.

Those are great ideas. An ideal classroom, no matter how futuristic, still needs to be functional.

After we had talked for a while, students asked me questions they had compiled before I came:

What kinds of desks should students have? Ones that allow collaboration, I said.

What kinds of chairs are best? Comfortable ones that fit the tables, I said.poster-9-slide-and-drinks

Should classrooms have iPads? (Theirs did.) Sure, I said, as long as teachers and students learn how to use them for learning.

Should students have homework? Sometimes, I said, mostly because it helps them learn in different places.

Should classrooms have live insects? (Theirs did.) Certainly, I said, as long as the insects don’t get loose.

My Socratic approach led to more chaos than learning, I’m afraid, and I left with a renewed appreciation for the work that elementary school teachers do.

I also left with a renewed appreciation for the minds of children. An ideal classroom should nurture those children. It should channel their energy and their awe, not contain it. It should foster experimentation and provide outlets for exploration. It should inspire them to learn, not force them to learn. It should encourage the unfettered creativity we all need to thrive in both the physical and digital worlds.

All of those things apply to college classrooms as much as they do to second-grade classrooms.

I’m not sure what sort of room design the second-graders in Ms. Kahmann’s class will end up with. No doubt, it will be one that inspires them and that makes me want to visit. Maybe next time, I’ll slip through the portal or climb aboard the monorail.

poster-4-snake-slide


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.

Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.

If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.

Classroom, no credit needed, sxc.hu
Photo via sxc.hu. Illustration by Doug Ward.

Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.

I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?

Surprises from a classroom

I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.

I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.

The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.

So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.

The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.

Rethinking teaching as well as room design

The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.

Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.

So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.