Transform the Learning Environment, Transform Learning!

By Patricia Cadigan, ALEP, M. Ed., Vice President, Learning Environments, Artcobell
November 1, 2023

The educational system may never again have a disruption of the magnitude of COVID 19. Disruption can bring positive change too and as we continue to navigate through it, most educators and administrators agree that this is the right time to reimagine the way we educate students today and into the future.

Like it or not, the pandemic of 2020 shone a spotlight on the disparities in teaching and learning across the country. It opens the door for us to rethink practices, policies, principles, and even place. We have a unique chance to connect the dots between what we teach, how we teach, where we teach, and align it to our vision of student success.

Can changing the space change the outcome?

There is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence showing that transforming learning environments is a necessary step to transform learning. Lessons learned from virtual and hybrid learning environments gave us insight on student engagement, student social emotional needs, instructional models, and learning activities. These stories can guide us to make the decisions on transforming learning by designing environments to support it.

Innovative leader and Principal Darren Bedard in the Surrey, Vancouver, British Columbia took advantage of the COVID disruption to embrace change and devise a plan to implement his school’s bold vision. In 2020 a beautifully designed school was already under construction. The vision for the planning team was to design an environment that would enhance collaborative, innovative, and personalized learning opportunities for their students. Due to the COVID restrictions, school opening was delayed by a year, which posed many different challenges for the administrative team at Grandview Heights Secondary School. The leadership team went to work to develop a singular vision that would utilize their educational spaces and classroom furnishings to transform the environment, to open the door to transform learning, and, ultimately, to connect their community in transforming the ideology of student success.

Darren states, their vision of their new buildings and learning environments “needed to retain relevance well into the future”. Realizing that virtual learning is here to stay, they embraced learning models for all core academic learning areas to support collaboration, student wellbeing and personalized learning. Connecting the dots between the vision and the built environment was critical to their success.

Whether you are making the kind of ground-breaking transformation that the team at Grandview was or are simply making the “collaborative conversion” to flexible classroom furnishings, here are 4 things to consider when planning for today and preparing for tomorrow.

Make sure you define your “WHY”

American author, Simon Sinek encourages us to clearly define our “WHY” before making any transformation. This guiding principle or purpose provides us the framework to shape our thinking and actions, allowing us to be more innovative, more successful and inspire others. Clearly the team at Grandview Heights has defined their WHY.

Design matters

The design of the classroom has an immediate and lasting effect on students’ physical, psychological, physiological, and cognitive abilities. Color, Comfort, Space, Movement, and Flexibility can all impact student achievement (2017, Sheninger and Murray).

As you consider options for transforming your own spaces, try to shift your mind to a new way of thinking:
  • TIP: Move past “desks” and “chairs” and think in terms of “flexible worksurfaces” and “student seating.” This dramatically opens your options to non-traditional and creative solutions that can set the stage for new learning strategies.
  • TIP: Incorporate student (and teacher) voice in design and planning. Allowing students and teachers to design their space with flexible furniture based on the learning objective of the day is critical in promoting engagement and ownership.
  • TIP: Evaluate resources and materials. Before you start adding anything, ask what you can take away from your spaces to improve engagement. Busy rooms with “too much” stuff over stimulate students and disrupt their ability to concentrate.

Know what you are buying

It goes without saying that if you’re investing in new furniture, you want it to last. Finding the right fit takes time and work. Let your teachers and students kick the tires, gathering feedback on which products enhance teaching and eliminate barriers to learning. Pilot classrooms can be critical. This is also your opportunity to test durability, functionality, and comfort.

  • TIP: Avoid buyer’s remorse. Know the warranties offered by the manufacturers you are purchasing from. Understand their process for replacements and repairs. Get references and contact schools that have purchased the furniture.

Post occupancy expectations and plans

Transformation isn’t a slam-dunk. It takes work! How will you get everyone on board to execute your classroom transformation? Providing professional learning for teachers, staff, and students on the functionality of the furniture is critical! Your vision is to prepare your students for the future, and you will need all systems aligned to do that.

In an interview, Belinda Kuck, Director of Teaching and Learning for the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, said she was skeptical of professional learning for furniture at first. She notes that the importance of setting expectations and training teachers before they inhabit a new space is critical in transforming learning. Invest in professional learning for classroom furniture just the way you invest in it for math or reading.

  • TIP: Find out if the manufacturer or furniture dealer provides professional learning for the furniture you have purchased.

Now you are ready to implement change!

Where we learn, work, play, gather, rest, socialize is all impacted by the place in which we do it. Physical environment influences our behavior, impacts our mood, and inspires us to engage. It can encourage and facilitate interactions and make us feel safe and secure. Transforming learning goes hand in hand with transforming the environment.

Sheninger, Eric and Murry, Thomas. “Designing Learner-Centered Spaces”, THE Journal, July 2017, Accessed 9 Aug. 2019.

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. London, Portfolio/Penguin, 2013.

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