Modern Spaces for Contemporary Learning

Think back to how you felt after the last day you spent at a conference or course. If things went well you probably came out feeling enthused by new ideas but also exhausted and fatigued in ways that you don’t after a regular day at work. If the presenters have done their job well and you choose your workshops wisely, the day should have been full of learning that resulted from you having to think. Days like this should work our brains hard and it should be no surprise when we are fatigued by such an experience.

Conferences bring other fatigue inducing factors. A change of routine, the temptations offered by the catering and day under artificial lighting. They also often require long periods of motionless sitting, in chairs that offer little genuine comfort, arranged in cramped rows that afford little to no personal space. Conferences are a great escape, but it is nice to return to our normal routines and give our minds and bodies time to reset. 

Now imagine you are student in a traditional classroom; a student in one of those classrooms that looks just like classrooms did in the 1800s. Let’s assume that you have teachers who challenge your thinking, who are engaging and present lessons full of stimulation. Every lesson throughout your day is a model of quality teaching and you leave every class wanting more. Let’s assume your classmates are actively engaged in their learning and inspire you to do the same. This is perhaps the dream learning experience and yet at the end of the day it should still be no surprise that you are feeling more than a little fatigued by the experience. 

With your brain awash with ideas you head home. After an evening of extracurricular activities, daily chores and an hour of homework you finally get to bed. Throw into the mix a busy and at times challenging social and family life and the average day brings a significant cognitive load. While you sleep your brain busily processes the learning from the day before, makes new connections and extends your knowledge banks. 

In the morning, you awake and do it all again. And then again the next day and then the next. 

In reality, amidst the mix of spectacular lessons are a whole lot of fairly average experiences and some you would rather forget. There are probably whole sections of the curriculum that you don’t connect with and teachers with whom you have barely connected with at all. There are classmates who are distracting, disruptive and difficult to learn with. There are changes to the routine, interruptions and special events which break the flow of your learning. Lunchtime and recess are often the highlight of the day. Boredom more than fatigue becomes the enemy and the mind wanders. 

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This is when traditional classroom seating comes to the rescue. Uncomfortable, hard and restrictive seating brings your mind back into the room but takes it nowhere near the learning. You notice the painful pressure points and are overwhelmed by a desire to fidget as you try to find a more comfortable position. At this point any distraction is a welcome one and you long for the lesson to end so you can move again. All learning has stopped. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives and many learning institutions are exploring what is possible. Inspired by innovations in the corporate world from tech giants such as Google office design has seen some radical changes in the past decade. Beige is out, colour is in. Static, rigid seating is out and movement permissible options abound. With options for sit/stand desks the notion of office seating is completely challenged. Meetings occur in spaces resembling lounges and sitting on the floor or in a comfortable bean bag is more than OK. Google images of 'innovative office spaces’ or combine IDEO or Google or Pixar with office spaces and you will be amazed at what you find. Places that are as imaginative as the products produced within them.  

 Search for Innovative Office Spaces on Google and this is what you find.

Search for Innovative Office Spaces on Google and this is what you find.

Schools are starting to embrace these new ways of thinking and companies that design furniture for them are responding. Look at the catalogue of any of the large manufacturers of school furniture and you will find items you would happily place in your home. The shift is away from a one size fits all mentality to spaces that are full of comfortable options with the flexibility needed to adjust to changing circumstances. The most innovative spaces combine comfort with a sense of whimsy which invites creativity and inspires the imagination. Why learn in a classroom when you can learn on a pirate ship or in a pod that looks like it grew out of the floor. 

As with all change in schools the biggest obstacle is tradition. We have strong ideas of what a classroom should look like and balk at ideas which challenge this. Many believe that rigorous learning can’t possibly take place in environments which do not align with images of the traditional classroom; the type that they experienced. We need to challenge these ideas and show that it is indeed possible to create spaces that are a joy to learn in and where comfort, creativity and learning go hand in hand. Contemporary learning expects a great deal from its students and they deserve spaces which ease the physical load while inspiring their best thinking. 

By Nigel Coutts

For ideas look at these manufacturers: