A New Learning Curve

Issue 63

Steelcase 360

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A New Learning Curve

Ideas on planning and designing learning spaces from Lennie Scott-Webber, Ph.D., director of education environments for Steelcase Education Solutions

Lennie Scott-Webber, Ph.D.

About the author, Lennie Scott-Webber, Ph.D.

I’ve owned and operated design firms in the U.S. and Canada, taught at three universities and held administrative positions as well, all the while researching educational environments. Over the years I’ve seen the insides of more classrooms than I can count. Many of them are an insult to students and teachers alike.

My passion, and my job, is helping people understand the behaviors that come from different environments, and creating classrooms that truly support new ways of teaching and learning.

Active learning: a new classroom paradigm

Active Learning graph

A woman and her daughter drove six hours to a prestigious university, eager to attend the orientation program for prospective students. The next morning, just 10 minutes into the big campus tour, the daughter spotted a classroom. It wasn’t on the tour; classrooms rarely are. But the young woman peeked inside anyway. She turned and ran to catch up with her mother. “Mom, they use chalkboards. We are so out of here.”

It’s a true story – and points to what’s wrong with education today.

It’s not that Gen Y or Millennial students prefer shiny new technology to old-fashioned chalkboards, or that parents expect shiny new facilities, or that colleges cling to teaching methods that are decades out of date.

Actually, it’s a bit of each, but overall it’s this: that classroom and chalkboard represent to the young woman, her mother and anyone who visits that classroom that it’s not ready for the kind of teaching and learning we need today.

The world has changed since chalkboards came along but the classroom hasn’t gotten the word. Too many are not-ready-for-prime-time learning, a situation that helped inspire Steelcase to form the Education Solutions group. (More on this later.)

If you plan, manage or design environments, you know that environments influence behavior. So, what kind of behavior comes from the typical, rectangular classroom (traditional row-by-column fixed seats, a podium, a board bolted to the wall) found at practically every college, high school and elementary school in North America?

Passive learning. Students find a seat, the teacher presents, everyone listens (more or less). Raise your hand if you have a question but don’t move around. And don’t expect any kind of active engagement in the process.

We’ve all suffered in this kind of classroom – even slept in them, right? They’re the vestiges of a production-line approach adopted from the manufacturing floor and first put in classrooms 200 years ago!

Meanwhile, the world has moved on. Rote memorization doesn’t cut it anymore. Businesses need people who can solve tough problems, collaborate with others, and generate the new ideas and ways of thinking that drive innovation.

Education itself needs innovation, and there’s never been a better time to reinvent learning and teaching than right now. Students are ready for change and their parents are demanding it; that young woman and her daughter are not the only ones walking out on this movie.

Fortunately, some educators are getting the message, rethinking pedagogies, introducing new concepts in instruction and student involvement in the learning process. But they need help. They’re entering uncharted territory that’s formed by three factors – pedagogy, technology and space. This territory is called active learning, and it’s the future of education.

Active learning means real engagement between students and instructors, students and peers. Collaboration in pairs and small groups. Team projects. Students presenting to other students. Content creation and evaluation through a problem-based curriculum.

Steelcase Education Solutions was created specifically to support these new approaches. It’s also why I left my post as chair of the department of interior design & fashion at Radford University to become director of education environments at Steelcase, and why I’m writing this column.

We’re kind of like the Lonely Planet guide to this new territory. We study educational spaces, from secondary through higher ed, working with public and private institutions across North America. We’re going to school every day, listening and learning, working with teachers, students and administrators, as well as architects and designers, to help create new, innovative learning spaces that improve learning outcomes by asking questions such as:

  • Does the space allow everyone to be seen and heard?
  • Does it support the dynamic presentation of information?
  • Is it designed for mentoring, apprenticeship, and assessment?
  • Can the space support temporary ownership by different classes throughout the day?
  • Will it support the different rhythms of different classes – English in the morning, math in the afternoon, science later on – as well as the varied rhythms within a class period?
  • Does the space give users clear permission to adapt the technology, tools and furniture to the learning needs of the work they’re doing right now, and in the future?
  • Does the space contribute to student success?

Every school, every design firm is at a different point in understanding and embracing active learning, how it works, and what it takes in terms of pedagogy, technology and space. We’re working to bridge the worlds of academia and design through a common language and by creating forums for the conversation.

Using our research and insights as guides, this column is one way we’re trying to get everyone involved. I hope you’ll join the conversation. Email your ideas and questions to [email protected] or [email protected].

This is too important a conversation for being a passive note-taker.

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Filed under: 360 Magazine, Learning Curve, Steelcase Education Solutions

  • Paul Duffy says:

    Having just read your article I would like to thank you for your insight into the role the layout of a classroom can affect the method learning takes place. As a higher education teacher and the owner of a furniture design and manufacture business I am delighted to discover recently the amount of effort individuals and companies like yourselves are putting into rethinking the classroom/learning environment. At the end of your article you invite people to get involved and this is the reason for my email. I would love to read further and if possible add something to this area. I look forward to following developments and if there is any way I can help I would be over the moon to get involved.

    • Steelcase says:

      Thanks so much for the positive feedback, Paul! A member of our education team will reach out to you via email in the coming days. Looking forward to seeing what we can make possible.

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