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Active Learning’s Influence on Classroom Design

There has been a lot of talk lately about Active Learning and Constructivism, and how they can be used to enhance your curriculum. How can we get students more involved in the learning process? How can we encourage deeper critical thinking? Active Learning and Constructivism as learning/teaching philosophies surely provide a strong foundation on which to pursue these goals.

But what about classroom design? Not only does Active Learning inform our instructional design decisions, it can also influence how we imagine and build our physical learning environments.

The Flipped Classroom

First, lets discuss the Flipped Classroom concept. The Flipped Classroom was originally popular among primary and secondary schools. It provided a way to incorporate more problem solving and group work into the curriculum. In its simplest form, the Flipped Classroom is a teaching paradigm in which initial information delivery is accomplished outside the classroom, “flipping” the traditional sense of lecture vs. homework. When students have a general understanding of new content before attending class, they are ready to jump into hands-on learning activities like simulations and laboratory research. Now classroom time can be devoted to problem solving, application, and critical thinking with a goal of turning “book knowledge” into real world application. This is one of the more common forms of Active Learning.

Now that work in the classroom is devoted to these hands-on learning activities, we have the opportunity to examine how we can evolve our learning spaces to meet the needs of this new teaching paradigm. Universities across the U.S. have taken a keen interest in this topic, and what follows are my observations and ideas for the 21st century Active Learning Classroom.

Classroom Layout

Let’s face it. The days of linear rows of desks are over. This was a classroom set-up born out of the Industrial Revolution to mold blue collar workers. The knowledge workers of the 21st Century require a different set of skills, including flexible problem solving, cross-platform critical thinking, and effective communication. Classrooms should evolve, just as the nature of our economy has evolved, and the facets of Active Learning can provide us with some direction in modern classroom design.

Perhaps most importantly, today’s classroom should be open and flexible, just like we expect our learners to be open to new ideas and flexible in their thinking strategies. The goal here is to create an environment that can easily host a myriad of activities. Instead of smashing as many desks in rows as possible, think about providing areas to move and be creative. Instead of desks, think about using collaborative seating arrangements like pods or even casual lounge furniture.

Remember, students practicing Active Learning have already “learned” the content. They don’t need to be staring at a board or instructor podium. Instead, they need an environment conducive to talking about what they’ve learned and solving real world problems.

Pod-based surface area

Even though I have just argued for an open learning environment, most classrooms will still require some sort of working area where students can produce learning objects. Let me introduce you to the Pod.

Thinking back to your early elementary school days, you may remember working at circular tables. This type of working surface is now being used more and more in adult learning. But let’s make that circle a little more effective. I always encourage desk shapes that look like blown out triangles, or a circle with three points. Seating 6 learners, this shape naturally encourages all 6 learners to work in a collaborative manner, and naturally groups pairs of students together, offering an ultimately flexible environment ready to host many different learning activities. For students, this encourages deeper collaboration and puts the in-class focus on peer:peer learning.

A side benefit to this layout is that it discourages instructors and trainers from teaching in a traditional lecture format; the format that is most natural to seasoned teachers. With students facing in all different directions around the room, the lecture format is nearly impossible.

White-board space

In a world dominated by technology, this suggestion may seem out of the ordinary. However, in over a decade of instructional design experience, no single “technology” has outweighed the benefits of ubiquitous whiteboard space. Why cover the vertical spaces in your environment with paint and decorations when you can cover them in whiteboards? Even better, just paint your walls with a product like IdeaPaint to turn the entire wall into a whiteboard!

Lots of whiteboard space puts students in a creative mind set. It encourages them to explore concepts more fully, and there is something about tactile brainstorming (i.e. writing instead of typing) that gets those creative juices flowing. As instructional designers, we can use large “brainstorming walls” to implement Active Learning strategies like Mind Mapping, where students focus on making meaningful connections between concepts and ideas.

Computers

This one may seem like a no brainer for modern instructional technologists. Each working surface should have some sort of access to the Internet. There are many computer-based tools at the disposal of modern learners, and most are now web based. Just having computers on the desks with working network connections is a powerful learning tool. Remember, we are aiming for flexibility! Constructivism requires students to be able to explore at their own pace and in their own ways, and having access to the Internet is the easiest way to enable this exploration.

One strategy that I have seen work especially well is to limit computer stations to every two students. Again, this encourages peer:peer learning and collaboration, and cuts down on meaningless web browsing due to constructive peer pressure.

Shared Projection

To continue on with the importance of peer:peer learning, consider implementing a shared projection system. Give each pair of students the ability to share their findings with their peers directly from their learning station.

Consider this scenario: you assign your learners to develop a mind map to depict a particular engineering concept. Each pair of students works together to map out their ideas, and then each team of six compares and contrasts their maps, creating a single map based on the collaboration. Then each pod of six can instantaneously share their maps with the rest of the class and defend their position. For those learned in Constructivism, this is a great activity that focuses on Accommodation and Assimilation.

Non-central Instructor Station

My final recommendation focuses on the location of the instructor, and is a definite sticking point with traditional instructors with years of lecture experience. Build your instructor station off to the side of the classroom, or even in the middle of the classroom. Remember, Instructors are no longer the focal point of instruction in an Active Learning classroom. An off-center instructor station encourages instructors to take on the role of Facilitator (“partner in learning”), focusing on each student’s learning process.

In Active Learning, learners take responsibility for their own learning, and instructors are there to guide students. Instructors should be focused on metacognitive practices, ensuring the students understand HOW they are learning, empowering them to tackle more difficult and meaningful real world problems.


For more information about Active Learning and Classroom Design, check out the SCALE-UP project based out of North Carolina State University, a collection of innovative classroom designs from around the country.

Now let’s hear some of your ideas! How can you make your classroom more conducive to Active Learning and Constructivism? Let us know in the comments below!

Kegan Remington, an Instructional Designer from NAU, specializes in Active Learning Pedagogy and the development of dynamic, collaborative, technology-enhanced learning environments. With a decade of experience in education, Kegan’s career is focused on developing high-fidelity learning materials, integrative learning environments, and promoting effective instructional techniques for the 21st century learner.

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