At the Mount Vernon School, we intentionally create learner-centered spaces to bolster inquiry-based learning and optimize full engagement and deep learning for all learners. To launch a learner-centered space, start by setting a clear intention about your goals for the community of learners and the type of learning that will happen inside, and outside, the classroom space. Our Mount Vernon teachers have been where you are; these are the first four steps we’ve taken towards transforming our unique learning environments. These steps don’t require a big budget, just intentional planning with learners at the heart of the space.
1. Consider function first, plan the space to reflect the learners and the learning
Your space should serve the kind of learning you ideally want to happen in the classroom. To design this type of space, you don’t need an outlandish furniture budget. Nor should you worry if your classroom is not modeled after the shiny, modern aesthetic of the Google headquarters. In fact, you can create a learner-centered environment in any space without spending a dollar. The key is to design your classroom around the purpose of each lesson or activity. Are your students creating a podcast? If so, a traditional arrangement of desks in rows and columns is probably not the best approach. Are you seeking to foster dialogue between different groups of students? Perhaps you should consider the “flow” of your space and how the physical layout of your classroom is conducive to movement. Consider these examples:
For Elementary Learners: If you have room for an open space, maximize that open area for a variety of flexible learning opportunities including class meetings, mini-lessons, centers or group work, building or maker projects, and movement. If you don’t have enough space for a flexible open space, consider new ways to maximize outdoor space instead.
For Middle and High School Learners: The Socratic Seminar is a classic example of form following function in a learning space. For the uninitiated, a Socratic Seminar encourages thoughtful discussion of a key text in a whole-class setting. While sharing one’s insights is a key component of participation, learning to listen to the ideas of fellow students is of even greater importance. As such, the physical arrangement of the learning space should be set up in a way that maximizes the efficacy of sharing and listening. Arranging the tables and desks in a circle or semicircle should do the trick. Nothing technical or fancy is required here!
“Physical environments influence how we feel, hear, and see. Those factors, in turn, influence cognitive and affective performance…simple changes can be made in every environment to improve learning.” -Eric Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind
These examples offer ways of empowering students to evaluate their level of proficiency within a given skill set and to identify areas for improvement. By reflecting upon these questions, they will “get their bearings” as they navigate their path to mastery. Neither will take up much of your planning time. Both will encourage students to take ownership of their learning.
As a former skeptic, I encourage you to think about one upcoming opportunity that might warrant some self-assessment in your classroom. Are you looking to enhance your students’ communication skills? Ask them to self-assess a socratic seminar or or fishbowl discussion. Is there a first-draft of an essay that’s due soon? How about combining peer-review with self-assessment to paint a more complete picture of student work? In every discipline there are moments in which a careful look at oneself can inspire growth and learning, so try it out in your class and see what happens.
2. Map out the learning space with each learning zone and a plan for transitions
The learner-centered classroom often has many different activities happening simultaneously. Create order by setting up designated learning zones for specific types of learning activities. Designate spaces for group work versus individual reading or research or for building and making versus writing. Consider which pieces of the classroom space you can change or control and which you can’t. Those built in bookshelves aren’t going anywhere and you’ll need to plan the space accordingly but you can decide where tables or centers go. Sometimes, how you get from one place to another is just as important as the actual place. Be sure to leave space between zones for transition and design clear expectations for how learners will move around in the space
For Elementary Learners: Predictable routines promote feelings of safety and success and help maximize learning time. MV teachers use short music clips to signal the transition time between different activities. Music isn’t just for clean-up time, although we all remember the clean-up song. Try using short clips of instrumental music to signal transition to the carpet for a mini-lesson, from a mini-lesson into small group or individual work times, or to move to lunch or recess; different music indicates different transitions. Learners will quickly pick up on the routine and know what to do and how quickly when they hear their key music.
For Middle and High School Learners: With reasonable parameters in place, the learning space can extend well-beyond the confines of the classroom walls. Granting opportunities for students to choose where they work can foster a sense of autonomy and provide a nice change of scenery, especially if the weather is nice! However, chaos doesn’t have to reign. The teacher should establish clear guidelines for working outside of the classroom and hold students accountable for their progress. Obviously, not all spaces are conducive to learning, and it’s important to ensure that everyone remains on campus. Students will have to make peace with the fact that the McDonald’s drive-thru will not function as the command center for their research project about the Harlem Renaissance. Encourage students to choose a relatively quiet space in the hallway, in the library, or in a courtyard and notify you of their location as soon as they arrive/within ten minutes. Then, rotate between groups, ensuring that everyone is on task and that each student has a proper understanding of the day’s objectives. It may also be helpful to ask students to log into Zoom just in case they need to get your attention when you are assisting another group or back in the classroom. Students will enjoy the sense of agency they feel in choosing their work spaces, and you will still be able to help facilitate their learning throughout the class period
3. Plan for materials and procedures
Learning spaces usually come with a lot of stuff, important materials for active learning. Instead of taking valuable learning time searching for materials, ensure that all of the materials learners will need are easily accessible. In order to minimize time in transition, set up clear expectations for how and when learners can access materials. Have you mapped out zones for specific types of learning activities? If so, make sure the materials that learners will need in those zones are right there too. Backstock, teacher resources, and materials that aren’t currently being used can be stored away in closed cabinets. Remember, learners can and should be responsible for the care and organization of materials within their learning space
For Elementary Learners: Place math manipulatives and other frequently used tools in clear bins with labels at the right height for the age group. Young learners won’t use what they can’t see. Encourage decision-making skills by allowing them to decide which tools will best help them solve or model their problem. Discuss with learners which materials they need at their tables like pencils, notebooks, scissors, markers, and calculators, and organize them into one divided bin or within another designated, easily accessible area.
For Middle and High School Learners: As students get older, they should feel empowered to increasingly take ownership of their learning. One way to assist in this transition is to encourage them to procure their own materials from a central location. In doing so, they will need to assess the type and quantity of materials their task requires. Acting as responsible stewards of resources, rather than having to ask for permission to use items, generates a sense of ownership and agency. In the maker spaces at The Mount Vernon School, all students are expected to abide by a set of safety requirements, but, otherwise, can come and go as they please in their pursuit of a multitude of “maker items.” Students constructed the boats shown below through a process of trial and error that entailed multiple trips to the supply cart for each group! However, a “maker space” is not required for free and open access to supplies in a central location. As long as your students can acquire the materials they need based on their own calculated judgment, you are creating a learner-centered space!
4. Design for learner agency
Invite learners to share what they like, wish, and wonder about the current space or ask for more open-ended feedback like “I learn best when…” Be purposeful about frequently asking for learner feedback. Ask “how is the space working for us now?” Reflect on environmental conditions like light, noise, and temperature as well. Give learners developmentally appropriate ownership of the space by putting their ideas into practice. Consider how learners can take responsibility for the management and care of the classroom through classroom jobs or procedures. Foster a sense of ownership by ensuring that learners see themselves represented in the space and truly believe they are equal shareholders of the learning environment.
For Elementary Learners: Humans love to see reflections of themselves. Designate a space, typically a wall or board within the classroom or the adjoining hallway, for documentation of the learning process currently happening. This shouldn’t be a brag board but rather a reflection of what’s in progress now. Let learners use this wall or board to reflect on their learning by deciding how to curate learning artifacts, photos, and summaries of learning experiences. When you refer back to this documentation often, it becomes a rich, meaningful way to grow the learning and make connections to new learning.
For Middle and High School Learners: Whether in a public or private school setting, teachers often exercise a considerable amount of control over the arrangement of their learning spaces. One way to design both the space and the learning experiences for learner agency is by using a station rotation model. This allows teachers to foster a sense of autonomy and choice, while holding students accountable for their work. Arrange the furniture so that you have four or five stations around the classroom. Then, divide learners into groups for each station. Whether learners work together, independently, or both is up to you; stations don’t need exactly equal numbers of learners. Possible stations could include picking research topics from a list, beginning work on the research project using curated resources, analyzing similarities and differences in source materials, or identifying everything they know and everything they need to know about a few topics of interest. Regardless of how you choose to do it, or which subject you teach, it is important to ensure that the class can complete the stations in any order, so that no station absolutely requires information or knowledge from a previous one. Pacing of the rotations may vary, and a station rotation could take a few days, or even a week, to complete. Stations that allow learners to move around and pursue ideas in a nonlinear fashion encourage ownership of learning and make learners feel as though they have stepped into an autonomous sphere. The type of space you have matters very little; how you arrange it to optimize learning and learner agency is where the fun begins!
Dream big, but start small
The best learning spaces are reflections of the community of learners and the learning happening within them. Those spaces amplify the learning rather than inhibit it. Dream big, but start small. Begin by reflecting with your class on the current learning space; it can be as small as a 10 minute visible thinking routine like I like, I wish, What if. Pick one thing to change now based on that feedback and take that one step closer to a more learner-centered practice. Transformation begins with courage to make just one small change.