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When it comes to being an authority on transforming learning spaces you may have heard of Dr. Robert Dillon. He’s worked with many teachers on how to make their classrooms more student-centred and learner friendly and has co-authored a book about the subject: The Space: A Guide for Educators, with designer and educator Rebecca Hare. These are the key takeaways.

Talk to your students: Dillon advises educators to ask their students two questions and to ask them frequently. First, What’s new in the room? and second, what in this room supports your learning, and what gets in the way of it? “Students are going to start naming things that have been up in the classroom since the beginning of the year,” Dillon says. “When that happens, there’s a problem. All of that stuff just becomes visual noise, and it doesn’t do anything to aid the learning.”

Remove items that don’t aid learning: So what do you do about the visual noise? Well one of the simplest changes we can make to our classrooms, says Dillon, is to take things out: “I haven’t been in a classroom in the country that couldn’t remove 10 or 15 things. Every time a human being comes into a space, they visually process the entire room.” In many of these rooms, he says, “by the time we actually ask (students) to intellectually engage, they’re visually exhausted.” Dillon advises teachers to take things out on a trial basis. “I tell teachers, take a trunk full of stuff—whatever size the trunk of your car is—take those things out of your classroom for a couple of weeks, then you can really make a decision on whether you need them or not.”

Consider what’s on your walls: Thinking about the visual noise on the classroom walls is also very important. Are the elements placed on them supporting learning or distracting from it? Don’t overwhelm with color and decoration: “Designing a learning space isn’t the same thing as decorating it. When our spaces are put together without an understanding of what works best for learning” Dillon says, “You have classrooms that look like a bag of Skittles.” Rather than fill your classroom with lots of colors, try to narrow your color palette to three main colors: One neutral, “a kind of base color, whether that’s white, some sort of tan or some sort of gray,” and two accent colors, “colors that can really kind of pop.” Doing this will reduce visual noise and allow students to focus better. “Kids notice,” Dillon says. “There is a coherence, there is a calming, it feels comfortable.” Choose the three main colors you’d like to work with, then start moving closer to it with wall color, storage containers, and other accessories. “When I buy new things,” Dillon says, “when I take things away, I want to get closer and closer to these three colors. That can’t happen in a year, for most places. But it can be a journey that you’re on to get closer and closer to a color palette that’s coherent.”

Give students more seating options: Changing up your classroom layout and giving kids choice and agency around where they can be and sit, goes a long way to saying you trust them and they own the classroom. This does not mean you need a whole re-fit, you can use or re-purpose the furniture you have right now. Dillon explains how this can work: “You have 30 desks. No one’s going to take them. No one’s going to put them anywhere else. Why don’t you make one row of six, then two clusters of six, and then a long kind of what I call a ‘boardroom style’ where you have 12 desks face-to-face to each other, and then give kids choice on where to be in that classroom.

Creating spaces for different learning styles and purposes:

Create spaces for collaboration: Desks in rows are fine if all we want to do is feed information to students and have them spit it back out. But we now understand that students need more than facts: Among other things, they need to be able to communicate well and work together to solve problems. Our classrooms need to reflect that. So when rethinking your classroom design, look for ways to make more of these collaborative spaces possible. As mentioned above, pushing tables or desks you already have together is one way to achieve this.

Create space for creation: Classrooms where project-based learning and design thinking are taking the place need spaces where students can sketch, build, make, and prototype. That kind of work requires clear surfaces and centers where students can access all kinds of materials—not just typical school supplies. “We’ve oftentimes had markers and glue and scissors,” Dillon says. “I advocate deeply for adding just a chunk of cardboard to lo-fi prototype, to be able to go to a kid and say, Hey, we just finished chapter three. I want you to go get three pieces of cardboard and summarize chapter three for me.” Another consideration is where to store work in progress. “When you create things, you’re not going to finish them in 30 minutes,” Dillon reminds us. “You have to have a place to store them or put them away.”

Create writable spaces: One specific type of space for creation and collaboration is what Dillon and Hare call a “writable space.” In many of the classrooms Dillon visits, “Teachers own a lot of the writable space. There are teacher words up, there are teacher posters up, there are things on that writable space. I would give more writable space back to kids for them to process and sketch-note and get all their things up on the board.”

Create spaces for quiet: “We have a lot of kids that come to our schools that are stressed out, that are impacted by poverty on a daily basis, that need a quiet moment in their life,” Dillon says, “and we want to make sure classrooms can be safe, caring, and trauma-informed in the work they’re doing. I think that really good learning space design, first and foremost, cares for kids and takes care of their needs so that then learning can really happen. A lot of classrooms certainly have a place where they send kids to reframe and rethink. But for us, we want to make sure all classrooms have a space to validate introverts, reflection, and decompression.” When we don’t have these spaces, our kids find ways to get the quiet they need: “Here’s what’s going to happen: They’re going to raise their hand and say, Hey, can I go to the bathroom? Right now, our bathrooms are our spaces for quiet for kids,” Dillon points out. Half-joking, he adds: “Fifty percent of middle-school kids that need to go to the bathroom just need to move; they just need a moment.”

Showcase students learning process, not just the finished results: Both Dillon and Hare apply the philosophy to the spaces they help design, that the learning process should be documented and displayed, not just the finished products. They advise teachers to keep looking for ways to display student learning in their classrooms. “Sometimes that can be an ongoing list of ideas surrounding a central question,” Dillon explains. “That can look like pictures of kids working in a classroom that are up where folks are putting sticky notes on those, either praising what’s going on or asking questions. But all of it showcases that learning is messy. We’re in a process, we’re in a growth process.”

It’s always a work in progress: If the thought of completely redesigning your classroom is overwhelming, remember that this is an ongoing process. “Learning space design isn’t like a, ‘I did learning space’ checkmark for teachers,” Dillon says. So rather than trying to overhaul everything at once, start with small changes, include students in the process, and iterate as you go. “It’s a journey, and it’s always about tinkering.”

How Natural Pod can support you in creating better learning environments: Our aim is always to create learning environments where educators and students can thrive, Often this means meeting you where you are right now, so please contact our very knowledge team to have a conversation about how we can help support you in creating the classroom or learning space that would most benefit you and your students. All Natural Pod furniture is completely modular and flexible and adding even a few pieces alongside your existing classroom furniture can greatly impact your space: allowing you to define different areas for play, reading, quiet time, collaboration and creative group projects. We also offer multiple solutions for storage and display needs.

We are deeply committed to creating both better educational environments and our responsibility to sustainability. Our goal is always to honour both these two areas by producing healthy, natural, beautiful play and learning spaces that welcome and inspire students and relay the message that they’re valued and they matter.

Thank you to Jennifer Gonzalez for her interview with Dr. Robert Dillon.

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