Getting the most out of classroom space

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Melissa FranklinMelissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, rethought her teaching by rethinking her classroom. She created a flexible classroom, “the SciBox,” to encourage active learning, greater engagement, and student ownership.

The benefits: The entire 2,500 sq ft flexible space is on wheels – from the flat screen TVs to the lab benches to the couches – and can morph quickly to suit a given activity (small group discussions, hands-on labs), creating novel approaches to meet course learning objectives.

The challenges: Unfinished and accessible space – an atmosphere where it is okay to “break stuff” – aligns with Franklin’s teaching philosophy, but runs counter to a campus culture where students and faculty are hesitant to mess around with new and shiny environments.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Even in a traditional classroom, small adjustments to the arrangement or simply moving students around the space in a new way can promote deeper engagement. “In the three minutes it takes to change a room, it gives everyone the agency to take part in the learning experience.”
  • Be a learning space tourist: schedule time to explore and reflect on elements of other campus spaces. Franklin and colleagues looked at studio, lab, and theater spaces on campus for design ideas, but some inspiration may not require new construction. “Ask yourself how you feel when you walk into a space.”
  • Franklin observes that many campus spaces seem inaccessible and make students feel like they are not supposed to be there: “Why does everyone feel comfortable going to an art museum, but not to the physics department?” Rethinking space, she says, is really about transforming the tone.

Bottom line: "You cannot think that the space will remake learning.” Rather than trying to generate new behavior through design of a learning space, look to remove obstacles and create environments that amplify existing behaviors. “You need to build in pedagogical opportunities for students to engage in the space in new ways, otherwise they will default to what is comfortable.”