There used to be a time when I could stand outside a classroom and almost predict how the room would look before I even went through the door. That vision of a fixed classroom with a teacher’s desk at the front, rows and columns of student tablet-arm chairs, and (if you were lucky) a set of windows at the back started with my experiences as a college student and runs right up to some recent visits to prospective college campuses for my own son. These are the rooms where the professor owns almost 1/3 of the floor area to espouse on the wisdom of the ages.
But wait! That typical classroom is becoming a memory. The hierarchical relationship of “sage-on-the-stage” is undergoing a major transformation as colleges and universities adopt new approaches that incorporate a range of disciplines and learning styles and there are three contributing elements in this transformation.
The first is the result of a generational shift and the learning characteristics of Millennials. Students gain more from personal outside research prior to class discussions and peer-to-peer problem solving in classrooms than in transcribing information delivered during lectures. This learning is engendering pedagogical changes that recognize the value of educational methods which stimulate visual, auditory and kinesthetic aspects of the brain and body. The professor has become more of a ”guide-on-the-side” requiring access to individual learners throughout the classroom.
Additionally, technology is becoming more diverse and important in the classroom to deliver the continuing expansion of information and data. The typical college student today is a digital native using multiple screens to both gather and share information. The learning experience demands classrooms where a student or professor can communicate to the larger group from these multiple screens. On my current project at Morgan State University’s Behavioral and Social Science Center, we are using plug-and-play monitors that share inputs from multiple devices and utilize capture-projection techniques to facilitate this exchange.
Finally, the learning environment requires a more flexible and adaptable spatial arrangement. The non-hierarchical relationship of professor to student has resulted in spaces that allow for multiple arrangements. We are designing spaces with writable whiteboard surfaces on multiple walls and classrooms that expand and contract with movable partitions to facilitate larger and smaller student capacities. Furniture has adapted as well with mobile seating and tables or versatile combinations of both in one unit that change the geography of a classroom at a moment’s notice.
Understanding the powerful combination of pedagogy, technology and flexible space design, I am continually amazed at the diversity of learning arrangements we can create using this approach. While I’ve long been involved in designing informal break-out areas in corridors or non-programmed lounges in public circulation that allow for the cross-fertilization of ideas, now I’m excited to be designing active-based learning classrooms and “maker-spaces” for our higher education clients as well.