The classroom environment can create a powerful experience that shapes a student’s learning and allows them to better engage in their curriculum. Recently, the idea of where and how learning happens has slowly started to shift from the perception that learning is confined to the classroom into a belief that learning can happen anywhere. As schools have begun to change their thinking, they have also realized that they themselves have only just begun learning how and where students learn on campus and how the physical environment and furniture can shape behaviors and outcomes.
Traditionally, schools have largely been designed and utilized for very specific and limited purposes. This commonly includes classrooms for students and private office or support spaces for faculty. The classroom has been the primary environment for hosting lectures, homeroom, tutoring, and often anything specifically considered “learning”.
The transition from a strictly classroom learning environment to thinking about non-classroom spaces as learning settings was driven by multiple factors. First, students themselves have been motivating this change by utilizing spaces that were not intentionally created for them and adapting those spaces to their needs. Have you ever seen chairs pulled closer to an outlet for convenience, or maybe coffee tables showing up in unexpected areas? Students need a place to go during downtime or between classes to focus, collaborate, or work on assignments, so naturally they settled in these non-defined spaces and changed them into areas of learning.
The second major factor for this shift of learning outside of the classroom came from cultural connections to information and technology. Technology has helped develop students who have realized that they can access information anywhere, and learning is not necessarily tethered to a desk or even a certain space. Students who are now exposed to advanced technology at very young ages have modified their social behavior and adopted the idea that learning is less of a solo endeavor. With all of these factors combined, we’re now starting to see the impact of how spilling outside of the classrooms into the hallways, dorm rooms, and cafes can help to shape the learning experience.
Steelcase has termed these areas outside of the classroom “in-between spaces”. Transit seating areas and collaborative environments can enhance the student learning process and encourage certain behaviors in the campus culture.
Before attending class or after class, students now have the autonomy to choose where to go to continue to brainstorm, see someone they’ve been meaning to talk to and stop in these spaces to collaborate, or change atmospheres to gain a fresh perspective on their work. These in-between spaces encourage the idea that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom—it can happen spontaneously anywhere on campus.
Architects and designers are now intentionally creating “pools and eddies” where students can gather and collaborate, organize their thoughts, and have what has been coined “creative crashes”. What is important to note is that in a great many cases these creative crashes are happening regardless of spatial support. How powerful might those collaborations become if we intentionally plan for them and provide the furniture and technology to accelerate their adoption?
Not only are we seeing this as a trend in education, but these in-between spaces are being utilized in the corporate environment as well. By providing these spaces in both settings, we are preparing our students for their professional careers. Supporting creative crashes in the school setting can encourage the behavior of collaboration, which is also vital in our workplace. What better way to prepare our students for the work environment than to start enhancing these behaviors sooner?
In these areas, it is important to provide a palette of postures so that the student or faculty member can choose the setting and ergonomic support which best suits their learning needs at any given time. For example, standing height tables are great transit solutions that make it easy to approach and engage whereas lounge seating suggests a longer stay with more focused intentions.
The importance to be able to move and fidget, stand or sit, is not only great for health benefits, but also gives the student autonomy over how they want to learn. The freedom of students being able to choose where and how they want to sit and interact with their environment echoes in their impact on collaboration or attention.
Furniture can often act as either a barrier or as an accelerator to behaviors. Providing the right solutions can motivate learning and empower students. For example, by providing students with various places to “plug and play”, charge their devices, and share/present information, we can reduce the barriers to mobility and help make more spaces functional for a student’s needs.
One of our favorite examples of this idea comes from a local education client in the Bay Area. This school is a hybrid middle and high school campus that will soon be transitioned into an exclusively high school campus as a new middle school is being erected for growth and new opportunities. One Workplace was able to sit down and speak with the students about their favorite places on campus. During our design thinking exercise and workshop that we hosted with the faculty and students there, the students were all too excited to tell us about “Wonderland”. They explained that this was a special place outside that was located underneath some trees and foliage in which they could collaborate and get away from the classroom to gain fresh air and perspective.
When we mentioned to the faculty that we would like to go experience Wonderland, much to their surprise, they were unaware that this space even existed. Wonderland was not something the faculty had ever heard the students talking about. Unbeknownst to the school administration, students had adapted a tree-lined outdoor alcove as their own collaborative workspace. This is one of many examples we have seen where students have adapted a space to their own needs spontaneously. While working with this school on their new campus, it was important for our team to capture the intent and purpose of these student created in-between spaces. We needed to design these spaces intentionally, but to also give the school and its students the flexibility to create the next Wonderland and ensure that self-created and spontaneous student space experiences may continue to form.
Joe Sparano, a graphic designer and design educator, passionate about developing tools and resources for educators to be successful once said, “Good design is obvious. Great design is invisible.” It is imperative that these in-between spaces are well designed, thought out, and planned so that the transition from the classroom is seamless. It’s also important to leave some spaces on your campus for the unknown. Observing students and where they gather, study, and collaborate outside of classes will introduce insights about how to adapt that space to best suit their needs.
“Good design is obvious. Great design is invisible.” -Joe Sparano
We want to work together to plan your next in-between space for students to continue to learn and grow on campus. Our company succeeds on understanding your needs and partnering with you for your unique solutions. If you would like more information, research studies, or trends, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org . We would love to partner with you on your next learning environment space!