Pedagogy and Classroom Design: Strange Bedfellows?

As I mentioned in my previous post, pedagogy has been at the forefront of my mind the past while. I want to post about a little brainstorm I have been having about the relationship between classroom design and pedagogy. It had never really occurred to me that architecture and the design of physical spaces would ever be influenced by or influence pedagogy. But it only takes a few seconds of thinking about this issue to realize they are inextricably linked.

The Traditional Lab

Spaces have meaning. Spaces tell us something about what is expected of us in that space. Think about the message sent by a traditional classroom. There are seats all facing the front, and there is a space for the teacher at the front of the class. This is a teacher centric model of classroom design and it sends a clear message. Forgive me for being blunt, but the message this traditional classroom sends is “sit down and shut up.” It is a listening space.

Technology has not improved the situation. The traditional teaching computer lab that most librarians teach in is the same thing. Rows of computers that all face the front where there is one projector. It is not a flexible space. It is created for a single purpose, lecturing with all eyes on the teacher. Try incorporating cooperative learning while teaching from a computer lab, and you will see how inflexible the space is. The teacher struggles to maneuver around the long rows, and students cannot really face each other and discuss things while still using the technology.

Collaborative Learning Spaces

So, even though I haven’t come to any firm answers, I have been thinking/reading about how we can design spaces that send the message of collaborative learning, that tell students to engage and discuss rather than sit and listen. I have seen some very cool solutions (although sadly most aren’t cheap).

taken from MacPhee, L. (2009). Learning spaces: A tutorial. Educause Quarterly, 32. http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/LearningSpacesATutorial/163854

Pods are an interesting design as the students are all facing eachother and already formed into natural groups. This space sends the message that students should be working together. Unlike the traditional computer lab this space encourages collaboration, and allows the instructor to circulate and assist students with their collaborative efforts. But on the flip side this is not a very efficient use of space, and might meet resistance from an IT department that will want the lab to be used as a drop in lab when not booked for teaching.

Waves or curved desks are another way to organize a space as it forces at least 2 students to be facing each other. This too also isn’t a perfect solution but as it still forces the instructor to awkwardly slide between long curvy rows, but at least the design gives a collaborative message to students.

Flexible Spaces

Better solutions are more flexible such as the design of a computer lab at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse proved by Smith in an excellent article “Designing Collaborative Learning Experiences for Library Computer Classrooms.”

Smith, S. A., (2004). Designing Collaborative Learning Experiences for Library Computer Classrooms. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 11(2): 65-83.

LearnLab at Purdue

But the best solution I have seen so far is the LearnLab at Purdue university explained in Doan and Kirkwoods article “Strategically leveraging learning space to create partnership opportunities.”

Doan, T., & Kirkwood, H. (2011). Strategically leveraging learning space to create partnership opportunities. College & Undergraduate Libraries 18:239-24.

This space has no obvious front. It is not a lecture space, but rather specifically built as a collaborative learning space. This lab does not work well for lecturing, but sends a clear message to students that the teacher is not front and center but rather a facilitator of learning who is constantly circulating to assist in collaborative learning.

I apologize if this got a bit long or if my thoughts are not perfected on this topic. But these ideas have been floating around in my brain for a while and I wanted to get them down. I just really think that with so much talk about constructivist teaching philosophies and the importance of active and collaborative learning, we could do so much better in designing classrooms that encourage this sort of learning.

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