Designing Learning Spaces for Student Engagement

Teacher and former interior designer Erin Klein argues that students must have a voice in how they learn, and part of that involves listening to their needs when it comes to classroom design — for comfort, engagement and empowerment.

Designing Learning Spaces for Student Engagement

Classroom design naturally unlocks — or stifles — student engagement and empowerment in a way few other things can, according to Erin Klein. Klein is a teacher with a previous background in interior design and an author of various books and articles about how areas like design and technology intersect with education. She also delivered the closing keynote address earlier this month at this year's CUE conference.

THE Journal: It seems like people can mean a lot of different things when they talk about empowering someone, from instilling them with confidence to helping them fight social narratives in their own heads to helping them gain or learn to use tools to solve problems. What do you mean when you talk about empowering students?

Erin Klein

Klein: When I think about empowering students, one of the foundational pieces that comes to mind is listening to the student's voice and valuing that. I think when you give students, no matter how young or what grade level they are, a platform where their voice can be heard they instantly increase engagement. They feel valued. They feel like what they're learning matters because what they have to contribute matters. So I think that that's the most important part. And you know as adults if we think about what empowers us most it's often times where we feel included or a valuable part of something.

So, in the classroom — so often I think not done intentionally — but I think just with the demands of the curriculum and the pace of the day, oftentimes educators get tied up in doing most of the talking, in doing most of the instructing where  there can actually be a great deal learned from kind of pulling back a little and letting the students take charge and allowing their voice to be heard. I think that would be most important, really just listening to the students and letting them add and shape the discussion.

THE Journal: When I think of empowering students, building relationships and the importance of class design, it makes sense how any two of those three snaps together, but somehow the relationship between all three is a little less intuitive. Can you talk a little about how these ideas all inform one another or intersect?

Klein: It started actually in my second-grade classroom through having conversations and building relationships with my students in our daily class meetings. As I would get to know my new group of learners that first week or two of school, one of the conversations organically just turned into, "How do you learn best, and what sort of environments do you like? What makes you most comfortable?" And it was interesting that overwhelmingly the response from all of my students was they really want to be comfortable physically whenever they're learning and they said sometimes it's just hard to focus if the table's too tall or the chair is too hard.

You know, at first I just kind of chuckled inside because it reminded me of Goldilocks, but then it made perfect sense. So I started thinking about the importance of classroom design and what factors that could play in terms of learning. Prior to doing teaching I studied interior design as a career, so I started implementing some of my design background into the classroom and it just sort of magically started transforming the way I was teaching.

I have a background in reading and writing workshops, so I'm used to just having natural conversations with students and taking learners where they are and really differentiating and personalizing instruction, and it seems to me that everything I was trying to do was inhibited by the desks and the physical landscape of the classroom space. But once I made the classroom more comfortable — and it was through building those relationships with my kids where I got some of the greatest advice for doing that — I started just to change the landscape of the furniture in my room and the layout and orientation. And then I was able to more freely move around the classroom, the students were able to work in groups or partnerships more easily, and other teachers were able to push in and help and assist as needed, and everything was a lot more flexible in the classroom.

So often I've wanted my kids to just turn and talk and just have those discussions, but when you're separated by two feet of desk and then you have a classroom full of 20 to 30  kids the volume instantly gets loud, and it becomes very uncomfortable for someone who's an introvert to share their ideas with someone who seems to only be across from them, but it's actually a great deal of space away and it's just very chaotic. So once we just started to change the furniture layout and make it a lot more comfortable for the kids, everything I ever wanted in terms of just naturally having conversations and discussions among groups really just started to happen.

So for me they all just naturally relate to each other because we're able to come together and collaborate more and become more of what we call a classroom family. Some call it classroom community or some just call it a team, but in our classroom we really think of one another as a family and we learn to respect each other and to be responsible for ourselves and our spatial awareness. But it's just because we don't have such a stagnant learning environment; it is really flexible. It's more homelike, is what the kids say, and it's just a lot easier to learn in a space that lends itself for collaboration with a flexible classroom design layout.

THE Journal: Breakout spaces seem to be pretty popular recently, and I'd think they offer unique opportunities for empowerment and relationship building, but I've also been told they can present challenges with supervision, particularly if they're in a separate room. How can teachers deal with that effectively? Taking this to a higher level perspective, how can teachers interested in designing the spaces they teach in understand these kinds of tradeoffs and prepare for them?

Klein: I think if you designed specific breakout type sessions that are not housed within the normal classroom learning environment it's going to be seen as kind of like what the old school computer labs were. You have to leave the classroom to do something cool, right? So naturally it increases the hype and anxiety, and the chaos does elevate in terms of managing the class environment. But yet when it's inclusive and housed within the classroom, then it becomes a normal part of the learning experience and the children don't see it as something different because we're going outside the classroom to a breakout area. They see it as just, "This is how we learn because collaboration and teamwork and problem-solving is part of what we need in life."

I think when you give children more autonomy and trust they really want to impress you. They want to do well. But if it's only in isolated pockets, you're not going to see the level of success that you want to because then it's seen as just something new and different that happens in pockets of isolation and not often. So I think you really have to integrate it as a daily practice to see the type of results that would happen naturally.

THE Journal: From the perspective of a teacher working in the classroom, what do architects or other professional classroom designers tend to miss about classroom design and how it relates to student empowerment and relationship building?

Klein: No. 1, I think they miss incorporating the students' ideas and opinions. One of the first things architects and designers do is they have to bid for jobs that they're interested in or clients come to them. Either way they're consulting with the client. However, that doesn't happen in education. The clients are completely overlooked. For some reason it just comes from the top where the budget dollars are. But yet the administrative offices are often times removed from the physical building, the K–12 building. They're in a central office somewhere. So it's interesting to me that the architects and designers so often work in direct collaboration with administrative  teams in central offices as opposed to going at the ground level and interviewing and asking the students, "Hey you're the users of this space ergonomically. What would work best for you, or what would you like to see or when you're learning about this content area; or when you have to use these sorts of resources, what works best?" — and including the teachers as well.

Some of the most simple things get overlooked just because you're not thinking with the client in mind. You're thinking either "traditionally this is what a school is supposed to look like," or you're missing the mark entirely by not going to the users of the space which would be the students themselves.

THE Journal: The idea of future-proofing schools is really interesting, but I always have this voice in the back of my head when I read about it telling me that none of us know what the future of technology or anything else will bring. Are there lessons — perhaps about adaptability or planning or anything else — that working on future ready classrooms can offer teachers about their own practice and outside of design?

Klein: Hands down, first of all, it goes back to the kids and always does. I think you have to think about the demographics of students that you're teaching, the types of learners, and you have to communicate with them and you have to also be in touch with your community and what they have to offer. I think it does take a village to raise a child, and I think the schools should be more involved with the community themselves.

When you're thinking about designing curriculum and really preparing kids to be "college and career-ready," you know, what does that mean? What are colleges looking for? More importantly, you know not every kid is going to go to college. Some are going to go directly into the career force, and I know several adults who  have been incredibly successful  through trade or entrepreneurship. And I think that when we let students know that there are options out there and we give them the tools and resources and the life cells that they need to be successful in the world and not just college ready but also career ready, we have to first find out from them what are their interests and what do they see the problems of the world today as being. And if given that opportunity, how would they begin to tackle those problems in the world?

Talk about inspiring students' voices. A lot of kids will ask, "What does it matter what I think?" and it's like, "Are you kidding me? You are the future!"

When you really allow kids to think beyond just page 87 in the science textbook and you start asking them to think about "What have you heard on the news? What have you researched from current events? What do you foresee as problems that are occurring and how would you go about tackling that creatively? Even revising current solutions that are out there, how would you begin to use design thinking or different instructional methodologies to tackle these real world problems?"

When students collaborate not just on the questions at the end of the book but on tackling authentic problems that are actually occurring and that are meaningful tomorrow and in their world — I think that's not only when you get engagement and student buy-in but it also creates an authentic learning experience.

Whenever you're creating future ready schools to prepare kids for the world that they live in, you have to be in touch with the community and you have to connect that back to the learner to find out what role will they end up playing in that community. Then how can you scaffold that supportive learning experience to prepare them for that in the classroom, whether it's making and construction and 3D modeling or building and writing and doing like journalism or multimedia-type skills for photography or video. You really just have to get to know your learners and it's not necessarily always technology inclusive. It really just depends on what their passions are and what the needs in the community are. So that 100 percent goes back to getting to know your students and building those relationships and that awareness within the community of what is the world asking.

THE Journal: What questions do you have about classroom design after working on it for years?

Klein: It's funny that every year the topic of comfort comes up with my kids. They all want to be comfortable and one of the most shocking things to me as a mom and a teacher was when I had a group of students tell me teachers always make classrooms so pretty and "we just don't like pretty." And I was like, "What do you mean, do you want ugly?" and they said, "No, we just want something that everyone will like and not everyone likes chevron print or pink and purple." So my ongoing question to kids will always be, "What is it that you want in your learning spaces? How do you learn best?"

And I'm always looking for storage solutions. Those are questions that I will always have and ways especially to make small learning spaces most efficient because I think a lot of teachers are dealing with limited resources and small spaces. And, especially when you put some of the larger students the middle school and upper school students in such small spaces, how can you fit all the resources that you need with still having an environment that isn't overstimulating or cluttered? How do you manage those effectively? So I'm always continuously looking for those sorts of solutions.