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August 31, 2006
Educational research abounds with information regarding learning styles and how the classroom environment influences student learning. But more often than not the elementary school classroom continues to be designed with a generic approach to the layout of casework, furniture, computers and the design of the classroom envelope.
As any of us who have spent time in schools know (and that’s all of us!), the dynamic of each classroom is different. Each teacher has a unique style of teaching and the classroom “personality” shifts each year with the particular mix of students. New educational theories develop and are implemented on a regular basis, making it even more important to plan for flexibility in order to accommodate shifting attitudes and approaches to classroom teaching.
So the question is, How can the physical classroom space best support different styles of learning and different styles of teaching?
The physical space of the classroom, if broken down into parts, essentially has a perimeter and a center. The perimeter is made up of the wall planes, ceiling and floor planes, and the center, of course, is the space that is enclosed by the perimeter.
A look at each of these components reveals a strategy for designing the flexible classroom.
Teachers must be able to easily customize their classroom from year to year, and even within a given year.
It is common practice to establish one teaching wall that is outfitted with a marker board and appropriate lighting, a casework wall, a window wall and a computer wall. Floors are most often carpeted with a strip of hard surface flooring in front of the casework for “wet” activities. Suspended acoustical ceilings with recessed fluorescent lighting are the norm.
We need to look beyond this traditional approach to surfaces and systems that allow for individual classroom customization.
The floor plane presents the perfect opportunity to promote places for gathering, for quiet time, and to support an art and science curriculum.
Clever and careful choices in flooring material and layout can help to define zones within the classroom and provide the appropriate acoustical qualities. A careful balance must be struck in order to maintain flexibility and at the same time provide the spaces that make a successful learning environment.
Classroom walls are used for five essential purposes: display, daylighting, acoustical control, storage and space definition.
Of these, daylighting is one of the most important and the least flexible given the physical restraints of construction. There is little reason, however, to constrain display, acoustics and storage to fixed positions in a classroom.
Using a system of sliding marker boards and tack board panels could create multiple teaching walls. Stacking storage units on casters would allow each teacher to customize both the type and location of storage within the classroom.
Even the window wall might be made flexible by using sliding panels with various surface qualities such as marker board, tack board or translucent screens, providing both lighting and view control as well as additional teaching area.
The ceiling, more than any other plane, defines the scale of the classroom. Simply raising or lowering the ceiling a few inches can have a profound impact on how children perceive the classroom space and their place in it.
The ceiling also has a direct impact on natural lighting as it can control the height of windows and therefore the depth of light penetration into the classroom.
The ceiling, like the floor, offers opportunities to help define zones within the classroom. A lowered ceiling area might be used to encourage quiet study and to differentiate that space from the main classroom space.
The center of the classroom has traditionally been left open to allow for various arrangements of desks and other furniture, and this continues to be appropriate. However, freeing the wall of fixed casework and computer counters could offer new opportunities for arranging the classroom center.
For example, storage units fitted with casters could be used either against the wall or do double duty as area dividers. This approach would allow teachers to provide unique spaces within the classroom that could address individual learning styles, creating a quiet area for students that are easily distracted, or creating larger collaborative areas for teamwork and group projects.
Additionally, computer use in the classroom has shifted from an isolated task to an integrated tool.
Rather than going to “work on the computer,” students are encouraged to use the computer as one of many tools in their learning activities.
Instead of placing computers on a countertop along a wall, moveable carts might be used to allow for maximum flexibility.
One thing we know with certainty is that new educational theories will continue to develop, and approaches to classroom teaching will shift.
We need to challenge conventional approaches to classroom layout and design, and respond to the real needs of the contemporary classroom in order to design classrooms that offer the flexibility to meet very specific needs.
Kelli Smith is an expert in architecture and interior design at Dykeman Architects.
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