Learning Spaces Week at Harvard

Harvard EdCast: The Future of Learning Spaces

Learning Spaces Week at Harvard convened June 8 – 11, 2015 with over 200 Harvard affiliates participating in an event similar to an academic scavenger hunt. Participants were given a suggested itinerary to tour various learning spaces around Harvard University in Cambridge, Allston, and the Longwood Medical Campus. Each of the 23 locations provided demonstrations on the use of the space or enabled participants to tour via an open-house style. Please see our 3D Campus Map for further details.

Learning Spaces Key Takeaways

  1. Space is important for learning: In architect Stephen Baker’s experience, there is an emotional reaction when you walk into a room that is designed to welcome you and help you flourish. Likewise, you should be able to look into any space and know what it is, why it’s there, and what it’s supposed to promote. It’s not merely where the classroom meets, but has a real impact on the quality of the learning experience.
  2. Space sets a tone: According to Professor Melissa Franklin, too many spaces on campus seem inaccessible, unapproachable, or leave students with the feeling that “they are not supposed to be there.” In her opinion, rethinking space is about transforming the tone.
  3. Space can empower students to own their learning experience: “In the 3 minutes it takes to change a room, it gives everyone the agency to take part in the learning experiences,” Franklin believes. Her colleague, Logan McCarty, reiterated: “You have to empower students and faculty to own the space; to rearrange it on their own.” McCarty also emphasized that in doing so, the instructor fosters a sense of “we are all in this together.” Likewise at the Peabody museum, where students actively engage with the content they are learning, “full immersion within the process leads to memorable learning,” according to museum staff.
  4. Space will not change behavior – it can only augment existing behavior: Daniel Wilson, Director of Project Zero at HGSE, underscored that when thinking about assessing learning spaces, it’s important to remember, “space is simply a context for human behavior.” It’s much more difficult to generate new behavior than it is to amplify behavior that already exists. When designing space, remove obstacles to behavior that already exists. Melissa Franklin has observed this truism in her physics classroom: “you cannot think that the space will remake learning." She decided to cut the number of lab tables in half so that students were not always default to sitting at the same tables - you need to build in pedagogical opportunities for students to engage in the space in new ways otherwise they would default to what was comfortable.

The “do’s” and “don’ts” of space planning and execution:

Additional resources can be found on our Learning Spaces Resource page.

Miscellaneous furnishing observations:

  • Moveable whiteboardsAs seen in Lamont B-30, they are great to have class time flexibility, and they make great room dividers when students are doing small group work or private study work -- but the top half is the only usable space, because you have to get down on the floor to use the bottom half of writable space.
  • Confidence monitors: Staff at the Law School, the Kennedy School, and the School of Public Health all have received very positive feedback about the more frequent installation of confidence monitors (screens in front of the instructor that do not require him/her turning to look at slides), and that once installed, be ready for instructors to request them in every classroom.
  • Placement of lecterns/tables: While the Law School lamented the lack of surface space for instructor materials (e.g. laptop), the Kennedy School noticed that the placement of additional surface space is important. In Staff Auditorium, staff provided an additional table in front of the instruction lectern -- but placement is important, because when the instructor stands at the table, they have a blind spot to the students seated in the side of the U-shaped classroom. HKS also received feedback from some professors that the additional table, while helpful, was too low and required too much bending over to use the additional projector.

The Learning Spaces Week was organized and sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching and the Teaching and Learning Consortium

See images, video, and social media from the event.