Building High-Impact Learning Environments

Classroom design has enormous impact on student progress

Written by Keith McBurnett, Guest Blogger.

Until recently, our society was based on the “Gutenberg model.” The advent of mass printing improved communication, allowing people to engage in a level of coordination and cooperation never before possible. Our current educational system was designed to support that model. Now, we’re in what can be called the “Google revolution.” (Google isn’t the only technology company driving change, but it’s a major contributor.) Technological advancements are producing societal disruptions that make the familiar Gutenberg approach less and less relevant. In a nutshell, when our communication tools change, our perceptions change. Changed understanding changes our psychological makeup, which then changes our interaction with the world. This evolves into new forms of collective activity. New forms of collective activity lead to new institutions or platforms to facilitate collective efforts. Educators now have the job of designing learning environments that can prepare students for a future we can’t even imagine. But there’s a way forward.

Review Current Environments

School leaders need to take an in-depth look at the impact that their current school and classroom environments are having on students. Students spend an average of 14,000 hours in the classroom during their K–12 academic career, so the learning environment is an invaluable part of an overall ecosystem that supports teacher effectiveness and student learning experiences. In fact, classroom design has been found to have a 25 percent impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year.

Culture Before Strategy

Before a school can think about implementing new classroom design, school leaders need to address the magnitude of the change. Be aware that resistance from a school’s “shadow culture” can undermine its efforts to change.

Shadow culture is a the-way-things-have-always-been-done mindset. To overcome the shadow culture, bring staff (or at least a band of “first followers”) together behind a common vision. When my district, Burnet Consolidated Independent School District (CISD) in Burnet, TX, conducted the pilot of our Inspired Classroom project, administrators and teachers first had conversations about the value of student collaboration and the learning of soft skills as part of our school culture.

In our case, we partnered with a company called MeTEOR Education, whose consultants and designers helped with overcoming shadow culture.

We knew we wanted what MeTEOR Education calls a “high-impact learning environment” — a student-centered learning environment that would bolster teacher and student engagement, cooperative learning, and self-directed learning. So, we surveyed students about their existing classrooms. We also surveyed teachers participating in the pilot about their ideas for change. That feedback guided our discussions with the MeTEOR design studio team as we worked out designs for the new classrooms.

Five Critical Factors

A major challenge to introducing high-impact learning environments is the lack of a clearly articulated vision. Each district will have its own vision, but there are five elements that are critical components:

  1. Integrated Technology
  2. First, consider how technologies are going to be leveraged to develop authentic, technology-rich learning frameworks. The thoughtful design of space to account for technology is a must. School leaders must provide appropriate variety and access, and facilitate its universal use by learners and teachers.

    One of the first questions to ask should be: “How will our students be utilizing technology as they pursue their learning experience?” Each district will have its own answer, and those different goals will lead to a variety of learning space options and designs.

    It’s also important to not make assumptions regarding teachers’ willingness and comfort in including technology as an everyday tool. Ensure that educators have the support and training they need to provide an authentic, collaborative technology experience for students. For example, about a month into working in the new Inspired Classrooms, participating teachers expressed the need for technology-integration training. MeTEOR provided focused training and coaching for these teachers.

  3. Learner Mobility
  4. NASSP’s position statement on mobile and social technologies outlines that these technologies expand opportunities for interactions so learners can collaborate and share ideas beyond the usual class time. Additionally, mobile devices allow access to a multitude of resources, regardless of time and setting.

    Almost every physical space within a school can be used to extend teaching and learning beyond the traditional classroom. Today’s learning environments should accommodate informal learning options such as sitting alone, working in an impromptu ad-hoc group, and so on. A properly designed environment can allow students to seamlessly move from space to space as their work changes and as they have need for variety in that work.

  5. Multiple Modalities
  6. Both teachers and students should be able to organize their respective spaces to accommodate a variety of activities, including working with partners, working on small teams, large-group collaboration, independent work, and teacher-student interaction. Learning spaces should also allow for different visual and aural learning styles, forming ad-hoc teams to work on quick-turnaround projects, and listening to storytelling or hearing teachers model expert thinking. Also be sure to allow for both noisy and quiet spaces.

  7. Adaptability
  8. The upside to adaptable classrooms is that they allow you to take advantage of learning opportunities that aren’t always planned. In fact, the location of electrical sockets, casework, and other finishes may unintentionally make it difficult for teachers to veer from the traditional front-facing lecture mode. Therefore, you should also design new spaces to be adaptable. Without proper planning and design, you will likely face the expense of making even more changes to a recently designed space.

    It’s not feasible to think that the Google revolution has already run its course. In all likelihood, educators will continue to be called upon to accommodate new needs, including ones we currently can’t even envision.

  9. Dynamic Ergonomics
  10. The final critical component to classroom design involves ergonomics—the science of designing and arranging a working environment for maximum efficiency and safety. The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that poorly designed seats—as well as awkward desk and computer configurations—can negatively impact muscles, soft tissue, nerves, circulatory systems, and respiratory systems. The good news is that with the increased focus on ergonomics among furniture and workspace designers, factoring this component into new learning spaces could be the easiest part of a new design.

Making it Work
Here’s how to implement this program at your school:

  • Review the impact that current school and classroom environments have on students.
  • Assemble staff (or a band of “first followers”) together behind a common vision, acquire input from all stakeholders, and support them as needed.
  • Incorporate the five critical elements in Making it Work planning and design.

Details Make the Difference

You may be wondering whether all this effort really makes a difference. For Burnet CISD, it definitely did. Teachers reported that the new spaces have been a catalyst for thinking outside the pedagogical box and making lesson plans more collaborative. Also, we surveyed students after they had used the new spaces for three months. One of the most exciting revelations centered on cooperative learning. Previously, only 25 percent of students felt that classroom furniture made it easy to work with their classmates. After the changes, 94 percent felt that collaboration was much easier.

The ways in which each school joins the Google revolution are very likely to differ, but incorporating these critical steps and elements into your vision will provide a flexible framework for any initiative.

To Learn More
Check out these sources for a closer look at designing high-impact classrooms:

Humanizing the Education Machine: How to Create Schools That Turn Disengaged Kids Into Inspired Learners, by Rex Miller, Bill Latham, and Brian Cahill available HERE

Posture and Study Habits Guide by the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, available HERE

“U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey,” available HERE

“Study Shows How Classroom Design Affects Student Learning,” by Kyle Vanhemert, available HERE

About the Author: Keith McBurnett is superintendent of Burnet Consolidated Independent School District in Burnet, Texas.