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Enhancing Learning Spaces Through Thoughtful Design
Stefanie Dean, Graphic Design Teacher

Over the summer, Park Tudor made several design updates to classrooms, particularly in the Upper School. More than just enhanced aesthetics, these changes to classroom design can reduce stress, encourage social-emotional learning and support academic success. 

Over the summer I was one of eight teachers who traveled to St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for the CTTL Conference. My favorite session during my time there was “Learning Environments as Academic Amplifiers” with Dr. Robert Dillon.

Often, when students come into classrooms, the last thing we consider is how the room and the design itself may affect the student’s learning. At times, classrooms can be visually overwhelming, reducing what students are able to absorb. 

Here are the eight research-based ideas we brought back with us from the session to challenge our colleagues and to enhance the learning space:

Excess visual noise negatively impacts learning
Too much “stuff” in the classroom can leave students feeling overwhelmed and strain their cognitive load. We are challenging PT teachers to make sure the items that are in the room are intentional and relate to what is currently being taught. If it doesn’t directly relate to what is being taught, it should be taken down. 

Student feedback amplifies classroom design (check in often, 2 weeks or so)
Teachers are encouraged to check in with students. Ask what they like, what they don’t, if they see anything new in the room, etc. This gives teachers a better idea of whether the materials are doing what they are intended to do. Rotating materials on the walls also makes sure the room doesn’t become static and just create visual noise. 

Interaction geography promotes deeper design understanding (study how the room is being used)
Student feedback isn’t just about the material on the walls. It’s also about how the room and the furniture are functioning. Teachers can check in with students by asking: Are there areas in your room students feel they don’t belong? How much of your room is teacher-only real estate? Is it more than you need? Are there spaces for collaboration? Spaces for quiet reflection? How do they feel about the space? When in doubt, we encourage teachers to ask the students. 

Choice and agency support student engagement
While this may not work for every day, students are more engaged when given a choice. This can have to do with how they do their work as well as where they do their work. Some students thrive off of the energy of others. Some find it distracting and would prefer a quiet space to work. Is it possible to have both spaces in one classroom?

Drawing and sketching promotes long term memory
Having large, writable areas creates spaces where students can sketch, draw, and collaborate. Whiteboards on walls as well as writable tablets or even table tops work well for this. In the Fab Lab, we have whiteboard-topped tables and they have been a fantastic resource for brainstorming plans and ideas. 

Movement promotes greater learning
Creating areas where students can gather and collaborate also allows students to get up and move. Typically when students sit down at a desk, it signals to their brain that it can zone out a little. Even just a little movement can help combat that. 

Incorporate nature as part of the learning experience
Of course we would all love floor to ceiling windows in our rooms, but sometimes, you have to work with what you’ve got. Studies show that even images of nature have the same effect as nature itself. Teachers may consider making a slideshow of landscapes that their computer can show when not in use.

Students have a greater need than ever for quiet spaces (the bathroom shouldn’t be one of those)
We’ve all experienced students lounging in hallways and finding quiet corners, at least in the Upper School. Even though sometimes these gatherings can be a little loud, this is student’s quiet time. Turning your brain off, whether it’s hanging out with your friends or having some quiet time to yourself, is necessary throughout the day. Often, students will ask to go to the bathroom as an escape. As the school grows, we have a harder and harder time finding those spaces for students. As we continue to grow, I think we should look to some of our outdoor spaces. While seasonal, we have an amazing campus that is being underutilized. Especially on these beautiful fall days, I long for a comfortable table in the shade where I could sit and work. I think it would be especially fun to work with students to envision some of these spaces. One of the best parts of visiting St. Andrew’s was their outdoor space. They had Adirondack chairs that could be easily moved and gathered in small groups as well as round picnic tables with umbrellas. The umbrellas were especially nice as our first day there felt like 108 degrees!

As we start to look into updating other parts of our campus, we want to be sure we are making choices that work well for now as well as for the future. We have a beautiful campus with so many possibilities, and I can’t wait to see where we go next.