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  • Josh Arnold

Designing Student Friendly Learning Spaces

The timeline of classroom design starts in the 17th century when one room school houses became essential parts of the early American colonies. A look inside these small, mostly wooden structures would reveal a few student desks, one large teacher desk, and perhaps some slate at the front of the classroom to serve as a rudimentary chalkboard. For the next three centuries this model would experience some updates–chalkboards gave way to whiteboards, bolted down wooden benches gave way to the one arm desk for students, in some cases ubiquitous Wi-Fi for the classroom, and so on.



The parts inside the classroom changed but the design of the classroom remained the same.  Desks arranged in tight rows to help maintain order in the classroom. The teacher’s desk stationed at the front of the classroom to deliver lectures as the teacher performs the sage on the stage routine.


Strategies to increase student learning

To move away from the dated models of classroom design there are several strategies to put in place. The first step in most every classroom is to declutter. Teachers work in a state of limited supplies. So naturally, teachers will hold on to decades old materials “just in case.” The results are a classroom overstuffed with teaching materials that may no longer be of use. This may even overwhelm your students. You can declutter by removing a few items each day from your classroom. This simple act can lighten the classroom and provide your students a break from overstimulation. This first phase can be cathartic and it costs nothing to remove things from your classroom.


At the same time, you are removing items from your classroom you can start to watch your students while they work. Pay attention to their movement especially. If students are fidgeting in their desks or moving around the room without purpose you may want to consider changing up student desks to allow them to stand and work. In my classroom I have standing desks and I have noticed that the amount of times I have asked students to be seated has been reduced. Without changing anything in your room you can offer students a chance to work on the floor in the hallway or outside. This gives you a chance to observe, using student choice, what kind of learning environments they like best.


After students have had a chance to stand while working, sit on the floor, venture outside in a small group, survey the class in a way that will offer you feedback into the best learning environment for the group of students you work with. Based on student feedback you can begin to make changes in your classroom to improve the overall learning community. Your students may want to work in groups but based on the feedback you might find that partners work better for your students. That’s why it is important to include students in your classroom design. We spend a lot of time setting the room up in August but October and later months might be the best time to work with students in the design of their classroom.




The placement of student desks matters a lot. If student desks are facing the front of the classroom and there is nothing happening in that area of the room this is likely not going to have much of an impact on student learning. Student desks should be facing each other and placed in groups of 2 or 4. These new areas of student work should also not all be facing the same direction. Students are more likely to be engaged in the work of a small group when their attention is always on the group. Having students in groups but all facing the same direction can lead to off task behavior.


The strategy I really enjoy putting into place in my classroom is one championed by the work of David Thornburg. Thornburg suggests that schools and classrooms should have different areas designed depending on the task that students are working on. If students are independently working on projects, writing papers, or drafting inquiry questions they could choose to work in a cave setting. Sometimes students can’t accomplish the kind of learning we require because the classroom set up is desks in rows or all in groups. If for example, we want students to have a deep understanding of something, students need an area where they are somewhat alone and not surrounded by many students. Students are inclined to make these “caves” for themselves too. Students will find a space in the hallway, lay down on the floor or rug area, or even crawl under a desk to block everything out.

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