Spaces for Teaching in the 21st Century

Before coming to Virginia Tech (VT) I used to work in a governmental agency in charge of implementing public-private partnerships (P3s) in Puerto Rico. P3s are an option for the government to seek private sector innovation and finance in what typically is publicly procured infrastructure and services. One of the projects in which I worked with was nicknamed “Schools for the 21st Century”. It was an effort to impact academic achievement through the use of infrastructure, providing classrooms that would of promote themselves for collaboration among teachers, motivate student’s creativity, and move the Puerto Rican education system from the industrial age to the creativity age. To bring this project to fruition we needed to interact not only with economists, architects, and other engineers, but with educators.

For years the classrooms were set with desks in rows looking to the front, with the teacher as the source of knowledge. I myself, studied all my life in this type of a setting. With this project we wanted to incorporate different aspects of engineering and architecture that could help teachers teach more effectively. We wanted to incorporate more natural light, studies pointed that having a classroom with more natural light improves the academic performance of students. We separated classrooms with removable walls, allowing the teachers to have separate classrooms for separate classes (let’s say, in one classroom science, in the other art), but giving them the opportunity of opening it and using the space to teach the two sections at the same time (for example; teaching on the Renaissance and Da Vinci, having the opportunity for both teachers to collaborate and teach about science and art.) We wanted to replace the typical chair with a “mini desk” fix into it with desks and chairs that can be configured in different ways to allow for multiple re-configurations of the classroom. The chairs would allow the students to move their backs and not be necessarily in a rigid position during class. These ideas were presented to teachers; some of the interactions with the educators were bittersweet.

Some teachers said they will keep teaching the same way. They said students would become distracted with the clear windows and look outside and that they will not stop moving in the new chairs. They mentioned that they will simply use their classroom how they had been using them in the past. But there was hope; others were exited of the new spaces and possibilities. They mentioned they could implement techniques they had learned in the university, or they had thought of exploring. As Ken Robinson so eloquently expresses in his talk “How to escape education’s Death Valley”, a dessert could look death and without potential, but with the right set of opportunities, just below this deserted surface the seeds of opportunity could bloom.


6 thoughts on “Spaces for Teaching in the 21st Century”

  1. That innovative environment sounds very interesting (as do the teachers’ responses)! I wonder if the distractions from the chairs would fade over time if they became the new norm. Regarding the windows, I believe that students will find something to stare at regardless of the presence of windows or not. I think natural light would allow students to feel less “trapped” in school. It would be interesting to see how those new environments you assisted with affects the learners in them.

  2. It sounds very interesting. I think I want to know more about how did the new classroom environment effect student’s learning.
    What was the experience of the traditional teachers and the creative minded teachers?
    But I like the concept of windows and natural light, that address the issue of classroom being bound by the 4 walls. But I think this design will depend on the location of the institute. If it is not disturbed by outside noises, it is fine, or else i might be a problem.
    Again removable walls concept wise is good as long as the sound of both the class does not interfere with each other. But I think the sitting arrangement is the best change. I have seen this positively influencing class discussion and group activities.

  3. Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about Puerto Rico, have only visited once. The following post has little to do with PR and more to do with my own American public school experience.

    In nearby Pulaski County, two schools (Critzer Elementary and Pulaski High), both of which I attended, were built in the 1970s with “open learning” in mind. The classrooms were built without walls, the various “pods” were all connected through adjoining circular spaces, tables instead of desks encouraged social and group activity. At the elementary school, when I went there, this concept was still in effect (it no longer is). I found it both positive and negative, as while certain subjects, lessons and activities lent themselves to creative collaboration (reading, language arts, certain elements of history), others (math, science) encouraged cheating, and as long as one person at the table was willing (or unwilling, depending on social circumstances) or able to provide answers, the rest were as likely to learn ways to take them than to learn the material. The high school, prior to my attending, learned the open plan’s negative aspects quickly, and altered the entire structure to put up thin, semi-permanent walls, and largely did away with the tables in favor of desks in all but the science pod (if I remember correctly), where group lab work was necessary.
    In my experience, creative collaboration and unique, nontraditional learning environments fostered creativity among students that already had a desire to learn – which is great – and further pushed those that were there just to get by and get out down a pigeonhole of mediocrity. Fortunately at the graduate level, the desire to learn is already present, and these environments, such as the classroom in which we meet, do more to foster healthy discussion, collaboration, than they might if half the people in the room were set on scraping by on the tails of the other half.
    My point – traditional classrooms may be preferable in some cases. Engineered classroom environments can be designed with collaboration, creative learning in mind, but if the students’ attitudes are apathetic, unwilling to try, to learn, then desks or swivel chairs, tables, 100-inch LED computer screens won’t make much difference. Throwing technology at a problem isn’t necessarily a fix-all solution.

    1. I agree with you, throwing technology to the problem doesn’t fix it. However I think that technology can help us promote the development of the learning community. Traditional lecture-type classrooms make it really difficult to create learning environments where everyone is engaged to share their experiences. For me the problem is not about “apathetic students not willing to learn,” the problem is about the instructors not willing to engage them.

      If we have motivated professors willing to give the extra push, I’m sure students will feel the motivation to try. When we have that, technology can be an excellent tool to facilitate meaningful conversations.



  4. Thank so much for sharing this experience from Puerto Rico, Edwin! Physical classroom space and equipment (furniture) attract so much attention, and it seems that every variant has its critics and supporters. But what happens when we shift the concept of the class as a physical space (room) and think instead of a learning community — one that can meet in a physical space, or in the real world (service learning), or in a networked / virtual environment — or any combination of the three?

  5. The new teaching environment as described in your article sounds inspiring. However, it definitely needs several rounds of pre-test and improvements before widely used. For students in the entry level, it may be easily for them to be distracted by the new environment. But for students in senior level, it may be a great way to create an interdisciplinary learning environment and inspire them to infuse their previous knowledge. On the other hand, this new classroom may also be used to separate students into different groups based on their characteristics, learning interests and way of study. Just as Ken’s video said, students were diverse and we should teach them according to their differences.

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