The New Classroom

Ironically, classrooms often receive the least design attention in institutions of higher education. As Peter Hall pointed out in our June 2010 issue, funds from donors go towards building more glamorous spaces like galleries, high-tech research labs, even libraries. Yet the space where students spend most of their time is the old, regimented, sleep-inducing common classroom.

In working to redesign college classrooms around the country, the furniture manufacturer Steelcase had to first understand that classrooms had to change because students have changed. In the age of the online social network, students are more inclined to collaborative learning. They are taking charge in the classroom, driving the education process through discussion and teamwork, rather than being passive listeners. One of the things holding them back is the outmoded space that encourages outmoded classroom practices.

Steelcase’s experiences at the Stanford take me back to my own design school days, where every semester was a struggle with studio furniture. We’d wrestle the neat arrays of tables and chairs into grouped workstations and presentation corners, with private niches for our laptops and plenty of space to lay out large sheets of paper. The classroom already starts out as a flexible space that puts the onus on the student. Those minimal workspaces and the abundance of white boards practically call out for a heavy output of ideas. I can well imagine the creative energy of a classroom where the students feel that they have the responsibility of leading the process.

The University of Michigan began with the classic outdated classroom: a board and a space for a lecturer to hold forth, while rows of seats hold the students in place. Steelcase replaced the seats with their new Node chairs – independent learning stations, equipped with writing and storage space that can be regrouped as needed. And they added some really high-tech looking touch screens, converting the lecture into a rich, multidimensional experience.

New furniture is certainly not a solution to all higher education woes. But I definitely appreciate the shift in the attitude towards students. The old classrooms always seemed to operate with the idea that disinterested, distracted youth had to have their attention pointed to their textbooks. The new classroom trusts them to take more ownership of their space, and hopefully, by extension, of their education and destinies.

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