When thinking about designing a new learning space, or making updates, changes or tweaks to an existing one, most educators pick up a catalog or start a pinterest board and their minds begin swimming through flexible seating options and fun shaped tables and desks. This approach will get you some new cool furniture, but will it enhance the learning?

We ended up with a beautiful learning space in Laguna Beach last year but it didn’t start with a furniture catalog. It started with a clear vision, student feedback, and an understanding of how this space could support meaningful learning experiences so that we could create an innovative learning environment.

The design challenge:

Michelle’s classroom most often supports learners who have learning disabilities, ADHD and other specific learning needs. Her class sizes were smaller than others and often there were many seats empty, leading students in her class to feel isolated and set apart due to their needs as learners. We worked through how she wanted to support learners. She interviewed her students and built understanding. We became very specific with how the space should respond and support the learning and the we finally chose the stuff. Here is our process in a nutshell:

I never start with the stuff.

Vision Statement

Instead, start with what you want to happen in the space. What are great learning experiences?

Something as simple as starting with, “This space will support students to …” and ending with the verbs of the space (collaborate, create, debate, etc.). What are the verbs of your ideal learning experiences? This vision defines your end goal of the design and makes it far easier to find the right furniture.

Then we move to…

Student Empathy

Once you have a vision statement ask your students ask your students some questions about their experience as a learner in your school:

  • How often do you get to choose how or where you work?
  • School feels like…
  • In my ideal learning environment I would be able to….
  • School should feel like…

That helps inform….

The How

What should happen in your space? Can you draw out a day in the life of the space? What learning opportunities do you want to create? How much time is spent facilitating vs. presenting? Are students collaborating, working independently, giving feedback, creating? How might your space support all of your needs? What might you need to let go of?

Then we move on to …

The What

This can be easy to choose once you have “Just right” language. (See Goldilocks Principal) Instead of starting with a catalog, start with a “just right” description and be open to a variety of solutions in your budget (or maybe even your basement) that does the job well.

Rebecca Hare Feature

After a decade in Italy as a design consultant and creative director, Rebecca Louise Hare returned to the U.S. to study education and built on her BFA in Industrial Design from The European Design Institute in Milan, Italy with a M.A.T. in Art from Fontbonne University, St. Louis. Rebecca is an art and design teacher with Clayton Public Schools in St. Louis and a learning space designer and co-author of the book, The Space: A Guide for Educators.

About rhare