Walking into a vacant classroom and having a look around (even without the students being there) can tell you a lot about the sort of learning that goes on in there. How the furniture is laid out, the posters and work samples on the wall, the artifacts and resources available all tell a story of what is valued and what is possible for the students assigned to that classroom.
I'm picturing a couple of classrooms (fictional but typical of some that I have seen) in my head as I type. I'm not going to identify when, where or who - but one I'm thinking of had class desks in a haphazard array, with very little displays of anything on the walls. The teacher's desk takes up a sizable portion of the corner of the room and is a dumping ground with mounds of worksheets, student workbooks and newsletters threatening to slew off onto the floor. The laptop trolley is left open with laptops stuck in on varying angles and power chargers dangling unattached. The philosophy espoused by the teacher is of student choice but in a very unstructured way - the kids determine the seating arrangements but personalisation is catered using a worksheet driven approach. There is freedom but very little responsibility. There is choice but no structure. Nothing on the walls indicate that nothing is important enough to showcase - or that the teacher doesn't want to find the time to get any displays happening. Maybe, this teacher clocks out as soon as possible when the students leave so there is minimal time left to try and create an inviting environment. What sort of learning is possible in this space?
The next classroom has sections divided off for specific purposes. There aren't designated seats for specific students to sit at but a central spot within the classroom is set aside for whole class instruction or for students to sprawl out for reading or doing partner activities. The room has different furniture options for the students to use - some low seats, cushions in a corner, some higher stools at a higher table. Your eyes are drawn to the various areas and there doesn't seem to be a teacher's desk either. This speaks to a different commitment to enabling student learning - it is apparent that not all children can be involved in the same activity as a whole class easily.
We had Lisa Burman speak to our staff on Thursday in our lead up to the start of the school year. Her focus in the morning session was on the strategic design of learning environments and she shared examples of classrooms where the teacher had re-designed the layout to reflect a changed approach to pedagogy. It certainly provoked a flurry of activity in the afternoon when teachers headed to set up their classrooms for the start of the 2013 school year. People were keen to "de-clutter" and "re-design their learning spaces" which meant that her message about the learning space being an accurate picture of a teacher's approach to learning hit home. Some teachers who had already been strategically thinking in this way and had started their journey of re-examining what their learning space should be were visited by those who hadn't thought too deeply about these things before. Others who looked at a space and only saw one picture of how the classroom could look asked others for their opinion and vision to break free of their own entrenched comfortable habits. Hopefully, no one was misguided enough to believe that the simple re-design of a classroom meant that their teaching practice would be transformed. But thinking consciously about this is an important step towards examining one's own teaching practice.
I thought back to some of the teaching spaces I have inhabited over my career. I've taught in transportables, open space units, traditional single classrooms, a former library complete with an upstairs annexe and a brand new BER "21st century learning" building at my previous school. However, it is what is done within those classrooms that is most important - you will find more about that in an old blog post of mine from 2006 titled Classrooms. However, I think that when you know what learning should look like for your learners, then the learning space design will be shaped in the best way to make that happen.