Curated by Kids? Rethinking Learning Spaces

Chicago Catholic Schools

Curated by Kids? Rethinking Learning Spaces

Three years ago I walked into a Big Shoulders classroom that was undergoing renovations.  As the workers pulled up the carpet they revealed a hardwood floor that showed the scars of desks which had been previously bolted to the floor.

The desk marks on the floor invited the opportunity to travel through time and analyze the story of learners past:

  • Learning was one directional as all desks were affixed and thus the teacher did most of the talking.
  • Due to the design of desks being bolted to the floor, collaboration was absent in this classroom.
  • The forty-seven desks’ imprints suggest that information was distributed in a sit-and-get, one-size-fits-all fashion.

Whereas we recognize changes and transformations in the job market, , communication and the distribution of information we should also expect that our learning conditions keep pace with innovation. Today’s classroom environments are not conducive for learning if they are still set up as they were 100 years ago: rows upon rows of desks all facing the teacher, organized for quiet, independent work.

Tom Murray, in his book Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, points out the similarity of present classrooms to those in the industrial revolution, where students were being trained for repetitive factory work. “In the one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get instructional model, an ability to regurgitate information was the key to success” he writes.  But that is not how our children move through the world anymore.  Our society prizes creativity and innovation, and the workplace expects teams to collaborate and communicate effectively. Learning spaces are not just containers for education, but a vehicle for education itself.

A significant body of work shows that affective spaces yield effective academic outcomes and therefore, students and their needs should drive classroom design (Barrett & Zhang, 2009). Structuring time for collaboration, differentiating stimuli for a wide-range of learning styles and providing opportunities for student choice throughout the day increases engagement and knowledge retention. Evidence continues to build that classrooms organized for student needs versus teacher needs positively impacts performance, behavior and long-term student success.

Now, this does not necessarily mean we overhaul classrooms and schools from top to bottom. It doesn’t have to be costly, but some simple adjustments can be made to engage kids, update classroom spaces and craft a vision for a future-ready school. Begin by asking students, “What makes learning go well for you? Draw a space where you could do big thinking.” At Big Shoulders we asked kids this question and took their feedback to heart.  A group of third grade students requested a comfy couch where they could snuggle in with a good book. They suggested tables on wheels so students could move them around the room to meet in large and small groups. They also requested a big rug, clipboards so they could be mobile and a standing work area so they could stretch their legs from time to time.  With limited resources, students designed this learning studio which included mobile furniture, soft spaces and unlimited options for organization.

We believe our schools should reflect the real world, signal joyful learning and be a place where students want to spend seven hours each day. When we look to curate school environments that reflect what kids need we simply say to students “You matter.”

Your comfort matters.

Your conversations matter.

Your ideas matter.

And when we put students at the heart of all we do we directly impact learning. 

Kristin Ziemke is the author of Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom and is a resident teacher and innovation specialist for the Big Shoulders Fund. An Apple Distinguished Educator, National Board Certified Teacher and Chicago’s Tech Innovator of the Year, Kristin collaborates with educators around the globe as a staff developer, speaker and writer.