Four Tips for Designing an Optimized Learning Space
Librarians have a number of acronyms for making decisions about how to remove books from their collection. Each of these acronyms is designed to help them make informed, objective decisions about what to keep and what to release from the space.
This practice of weeding isn’t a normal part of a teacher’s life, teacher training, or the everyday practices of most teachers, but weeding the classroom is an essential feature of designing an optimized learning space. Gathering items and resources for learning is important for a resource rich classroom, but layering on more and more often lends itself to clutter and visual noise as opposed to an effective learning space. Recent education research has even shown negative impact to student cognitive performance in high visual load environments.
So why then do classrooms seem to be a magnet for more and more stuff?
Many educators have been conditioned to feel the stress of a scarcity mentality. Some teachers believe that they may never get the supplies that they need or their budget will get cut so they collect and hoard. In some cases, this mentality is reality, but in other cases, it results in teachers having 2000 sheets of construction paper and 15,000 paper clips. When you feel like resources may never come, you cling to everything that have.
Sometimes, the hoarding of things, both new and old, comes from a sense of needing to be a fiscal steward. Teachers want to showcase to parents, community members, and taxpayers that they are using every ounce of the taxes spent on schools even when items are ready to combust into dust. In reality, parents and community members don’t like to see old, tired, worn things in classrooms.
Finally, there are some teachers that have a Boy Scout mentality. They want to be prepared for any scenario. They want to have enough desks in case 10 new students enroll in their class. They want to have materials for a different grade level in case they get moved in a few years. They want to have materials for students that are below and above grade level. They just want to be prepared with stuff for everything. This is a noble concept, but gathering more and more can mean less and less learning.
To overcome these mindsets and craft a learning space to optimize learning, consider using these four ideas as a way to judge where letting go of things can bolster change, innovation, energy, and achievement.
There is no joy in having old materials in a classroom. They take up space. They send a message that the learning in the space is old and tired, and old materials take up space that could be used for storage, inspiration, and providing students with movement and choice. Look to eliminate old textbooks, binders, and curriculum materials. If you inherited a file cabinet, purge as much as possible as quickly as possible.
There are very few stakeholders that feel like you should make things that are broken or torn last another year. If you have duct tape on something, it is time for it to go. Students aren’t inspired by old and tired items. Even the comfy couch that seems like a cornerstone of a flexible seating experience can get old and worn. Excellent schools are moving past items before they look poor and worn. Find the five oldest things in your room. Make some intentional decisions about their role and their future in the space.
Items that are out of sync
Instruction changes over time, and the learning space needs to change with it. Make sure that support documents, posters, and resources match the purpose and design of the instruction for the classroom. Does the perimeter of the room really support the space? Does it feel like there are old items that should be in a museum versus a classroom? Are there images and resources that don’t support culturally responsive instruction? Do you have items that are left from previous teachers? Do you have items that fail to serve students?
Things that have become invisible
Items that have faded into the background create visual noise for students. In too many classrooms, there are students distracted by items on the walls. There are so many items in a classroom that are on the walls based on inertia and momentum. Continue to be intentional about all items to make sure they servea learning purpose. It is very easy for items to disappear into the walls and consume moments of attention and short-term memory from students.
Weeding the classroom is essential to an optimal modern learning environment. Make it a habit. Make it a part of planning. Make the changes based on student feedback. All of these areas are essential for an intentional design based on research.
Dr. Robert Dillon serves the students and community of the University City as Director of Innovation Learning. Prior to this position, he served as a teacher and administrator in public schools throughout the Saint Louis area. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. He has published four books. THE SPACE: A Guide for Educators, Redesigning Learning Spaces, Leading Connected Classrooms and Engage, Empower, Energize: Leading Tomorrow’s Schools Today.