Reclaiming the physical space: Face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder? What happens in the #spacematters

Reclaiming spaces for learning is more than the physical environment and its fit out. Left to its own devices, human nature will default to known and comfortable behaviour. No matter how funky and open plan the learning space and furniture may be, there are a few key considerations to ensure that new spaces don’t just become colourful, bright and shiny examples of the old-style classroom style.



What are some key considerations for reclaiming the space?

It’s not face-to-face teaching, but shoulder-to-shoulder learning: Do you remember the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa steals all the teacher’s editions (answer books) and the teachers don’t know what to teach anymore?  The teacher was once the keeper of all knowledge, the position was at the front – one face to many faces, top down instruction. When the nature of the learning changes from teacher directed to learner focused, then the posture of the teacher also changes. Students and teachers are co-workers.

Are students waiting for you to press ‘go’? The passivity of learning is reinforced when the teacher stands at the front to ‘start the lesson’. How much time and energy is taken up bringing the students to order? The desired learning culture is one where the students enter the space and know they need to get started.

Is there a front? Another element of default thinking is when the teacher is positioned in the same place at the start of the lesson. We become conditioned to face in a particular direction when we enter a traditional classroom. Furniture can be rearranged and the whiteboard doesn’t need to be the designated front, it’s just another tool.

White noise is better for creativity, so they say: The Journal of Consumer Research concluded that a moderate rather than low-level of ambient noise “indices processing diffluence, which leads to abstract cognition and consequently enhances creativity”, from the study, Is noise always bad?. The key words there were “consequently enhances creativity”. That’s why many of us prefer to work in a cafe, there is something about being in the buzz and alongside other people.

Get used to movement: Do students always remain in ‘their seat’ or even in the same place? When I was at school I was often in trouble from two things – 1. Talking (Would you have guessed?) and 2. Moving, fidgeting and not sitting still. When non-educators visit our school they often say “I wish school was like this when I was young”. They were probably the more active kids. Once boundaries and context are made clear, students can move around in the space during the learning session. The behaviour problems are lessened. I believe that many children through the generations have been disenfranchised from school and learning because they were required to remain in their seat and not move (or talk).

Think about what is valued: If silence, compliance and passivity are valued, then the physical space will reflect this.

A habit, or default position takes determination and time to change. We know that learning sticks best when it is fresh, engaging, relational and allows for creative expression (from the teacher as well as the student). The content of the curriculum may stay the same but how we package the learning needs to be dynamic. Teaching-by-the-seat-of-your-pants model doesn’t fit into new spaces.

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