How Would Students Redesign the Learning Space?

A quick disclaimer: I don’t know a thing about redesigning learning spaces. I love thinking about the creative process and I believe creative thinking can happen anywhere. Anywhere. Some of my favorite creative work in high school happened when I was sitting in a row, bored in a math class, and quietly writing stories that I kept hidden under my math book.

However, I am fascinated by the idea of redesigning learning spaces and the work that I’ve seen from people like David Jakes and Bob Dillon.

A few years ago, I had the chance to engage in a planning conversation around the ideal learning spaces. When asked to “dream of the ideal space,” teachers naturally jumped to two locations. Half of the teachers thought of Starbucks, which is understandable, because that’s where most of us would prefer to teach if we could. Big windows, natural light, an unlimited supply of coffee. Count me in. The other brought up the glossy, open design workspaces in Silicon Valley.

These locations were okay, but we had failed in empathy. the focus remained on adults and work, not children or learning. When I asked my students the same question, the answers differed.

So, the following were the most common places mentioned by my students:

  1. Playgrounds: Whether it’s the little kid playground equipment or the skatepark, there is value in finding inspiration from playground design. Playground designers focus on intuitive, fluid movement. I realize that learning isn’t always play. However, there are elements of playground that we could easily incorporate into our spaces. For example, why can’t we have slides that go down from the stairs in our classrooms? Why can’t we rearrange furniture so kids can move more easily? Why can’t we create places where kids can stand?
  2. Libraries: For all the talk of finding inspiration outside of our schools, many of my students described the library as an ideal learning space. They loved the choice and differentiation. They loved the blend of semi-private and totally open. And they loved the totally vintage Michael J Fox, Back to the Future READ poster.
  3. Arcades: This isn’t a surprise, really. Kids described loving the noise, the action, and the fun in an arcade. Although I personally couldn’t handle teaching in an arcade, I wonder what elements of an arcade might work in a learning space redesign.
  4. The Outdoors: When I asked my son to describe the ideal classroom space, he said, “a lake by a waterfall.” About a quarter of my students (often the most introverted) described similar spaces. They wanted to work in quiet. They still wanted to write, draw, edit multimedia, etc. But they wanted to do that in a way that would allow them to walk away from the screen and escape to nature.
  5. Studios: This could have been the result of teaching journalism, but students wanted to be in a space that looked more like a media studio, with moving props, green screens, and scattered places to work.

There were a few awesome ideas that simply wouldn’t work, like a giant bus that goes on field trips every day (perhaps inspired by Ms. Frizzle) or a pirate ship or an abandoned factory that they could redesign from scratch.

I noticed a few trends from this:

  • Students want choice in where they go and where they sit.
  • Students value the ability to move around without it feeling disruptive. Some want to stand. Some want to sit on the ground.
  • Students want differentiation in space, between open and closed, inside and outside, quiet and loud.
  • Students want more art and fewer word walls. Too often, classroom walls resemble encyclopedia vomit rather than places that inspire learning.

I’m not entirely sure what this means. I’m not convinced that we should turn classroom design over entirely to students. There are ideas, concepts, and experiences that adults have that students simply miss. However, if we say that we value movement, choice, creativity, and differentiation, it might be a good idea to ask students where that is already happening in their world.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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4 responses

  1. […] A few years ago, I had the chance to engage in a planning conversation around the ideal learning spaces. When asked to “dream of the ideal space,” teachers naturally jumped to two locations. Half of the teachers thought of Starbucks, which is understandable, because that’s where most of us would prefer to teach if we could. Big windows, natural light, an unlimited supply of coffee. Count me in. The other brought up the glossy, open design workspaces in Silicon Valley. These locations were okay, but we had failed in empathy. the focus remained on adults and work, not children or learning. When I asked my students the same question, the answers differed.  […]

  2. […] John Spencer writes, about asking students to redesign learning spaces: So, the following were the most common places mentioned by my students:Playgrounds: Whether it’s the little kid playground equipment or the skatepark, there is value in finding inspiration from playground design. Playground designers focus on intuitive, fluid movement. I realize that learning isn’t always play. However, there are elements of playground that we could easily incorporate into our spaces. For example, why can’t we have slides that go down from the stairs in our classrooms? Why can’t we rearrange furniture so kids can move more easily? Why can’t we create places where kids can stand?Libraries: For all the talk of finding inspiration outside of our schools, many of my students described the library as an ideal learning space. They loved the choice and differentiation. They loved the blend of semi-private and totally open. And they loved the totally vintage Michael J Fox, Back to the Future READ poster.Arcades: This isn’t a surprise, really. Kids described loving the noise, the action, and the fun in an arcade. Although I personally couldn’t handle teaching in an arcade, I wonder what elements of an arcade might work in a learning space redesign.The Outdoors: When I asked my son to describe the ideal classroom space, he said, “a lake by a waterfall.” About a quarter of my students (often the most introverted) described similar spaces. They wanted to work in quiet. They still wanted to write, draw, edit multimedia, etc. But they wanted to do that in a way that would allow them to walk away from the screen and escape to nature.Studios: This could have been the result of teaching journalism, but students wanted to be in a space that looked more like a media studio, with moving props, green screens, and scattered places to work.  […]

  3. Hi John,
    Lovely read!
    You should check out @debbiefuco ‘s tumblr on her experience designing the learning space with students.
    http://spacefordeeperlearning.tumblr.com/

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