Classroom Design

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This post was originally published on Bedford Bits on June 6, 2013.

I continue to think about  classroom design that supports the kinds of teaching we are interested in doing. I have written about my experience in Bits, when I discussed innovative design in a highly mediated classroom I used for first-year writing at Delaware.

I rely a lot on team-based learning, and I always seek classrooms that are set up for teamwork. I am not alone. Our team-based or problem-based learning classrooms are the most requested designs on our campus. Our colleagues in information technology who support classroom instruction have been developing new ideas for classroom design, including highly modular furnishings, lots of writing space on all the walls, multiple wall-mounted displays, and software to manage the distribution of teamwork and allow for sharing among teams or with the full class.

As we have remodeled older buildings and classrooms, we’ve progressively enhanced and expanded our team-based learning settings. An interesting argument has come up recently: Should we build classrooms that force instructors to accommodate their instruction to a team-based setting, or should we design classrooms that are flexible and that can be arranged for either front-and-center teaching or for team-based arrangements? I am tending toward the position of my Business College colleague, Mark Serva: If we want to encourage new models of engaged teaching, Mark argues, we should design spaces that do not accommodate front-and-center teaching. We should force the changes we desire in instructional delivery by changing the setting. If we create flexible spaces that allow instructors to rearrange the space for front-and-center teaching, they will default to their comfort zone. Since we already have plenty of classrooms that support lecture or lecture/discussion, Mark says, we ought to now take the plunge and design classrooms that unambiguously support team-based learning. These arguments are playing out right now in discussions with scheduling and academic technologies about furnishings and technologies for remodeled classrooms.

In two months, we are set to open a new Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Lab on campus, with four floors of integrated team spaces and wet labs. The team spaces will fit a maximum of 48 students, who will use the central space for team-based learning and the flanking labs (each with 24 stations) to solve problems in a lab environment. In a somewhat audacious move, we designed these spaces to force science teaching away from lecture. We also set the expectation that any teaching in this new building would be interdisciplinary. We imagined that we could integrate instruction in introductory biology and chemistry courses around problem-based learning, do away with massive lecture hall experiences, and create real, exploratory lab experiences that would not be the familiar cookbook style of lab. Making all of this a reality is proving to be quite difficult. Over the years, we have become very dependent on traditional approaches to instruction as content delivery, and changing to more active forms of teaching and learning is a challenge. It is very much an open question as to what sort of teaching will take place in these new learning environments. Change is proving to be difficult and divisive.

I’d like to encourage you to get engaged with classroom design on your campus as a route to encouraging more active and collaborative learning, the kind of instruction we have valued and practiced for years in our comp classrooms. I think what happens in classrooms depends to some significant extent on the physical and technological configuration of those classrooms. And if your campus has made significant moves to design new classroom spaces, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.