by Laurie Simpson
August 2, 2019
I tend to pepper a lot of conversations with, “I was listening to this podcast and…” Most podcasts in my feed are related to education, and Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy has been a favorite for years.
It was Jennifer’s episode with educator and thought-leader Dr. Robert Dillon that provided the foundational ideas for Room 110’s design. Since then, I have listened to every podcast interview with Dr. Dillon that I could find. By now, I know all of his tried and true one-liners, and I feel a bit like a stalker.
That episode with Dr. Dillon, titled “12 Ways to Upgrade Your Classroom Design,” was my jumping-off point and has been a touchstone throughout the design process. In a related blog post, the 12 upgrades are presented as a straightforward listicle:
(1) Ask your students
(3) Mix up your seating options
(4) Consider the perimeter
(5) Reduce your teacher footprint
(6) Create spaces for collaboration
(7) Create spaces for creation
(8) Create writable spaces
(9) Create spaces for quiet
(10) Create spaces to showcase learning
(11) Narrow your color palette
(12) Utilize the hallway
Dillon elaborates on the above in Redesigning Learning Spaces and The Space: A Guide for Educators, two books on which he was a collaborator and which I have read, annotated, and re-read. My research was not limited to Dillon’s ideas, but he is an innovation wizard, the Thomas Edison of learning spaces.
Some of Dillon’s upgrades call for a simple mindset shift in terms of subtracting from and not adding to the room, yet others could lead to costlier infrastructure investments. In the early stages, we had no idea what kind of budget we would have or how much grant funding the North Hunterdon Education Foundation would approve, but we stayed budget-conscious throughout the process.
My co-planners were Anne Mazer from Nickerson Corporation, a school supplies, furniture, and design company, and Miss Mary Piazza, one of our English teachers. Anne is our district’s go-to designer, and Miss Piazza has a keen and practical eye for how to maximize a space. They helped me to synthesize my research and plan the best use of the space we have in Room 110. In designing a small high school English classroom, we prioritized certain upgrades over others.
The first step was #1 on the list: I asked the students. They completed a Google Forms survey with questions about our existing learning space, what did and did not contribute to their learning, and to what extent certain changes would improve their experience. The students’ responses informed the design decisions we made, and later in the process, I returned to the students for their feedback on our design plans.
From the remaining 11 upgrades, here’s what I found most salient:
Reduce the teacher footprint made me realize that the huge, heavy teacher desk was a monolith which limited floor space in the room. Since 21st-century teachers should be circulating and conferencing with students, not just standing at the board or sitting at the desk, there is little need for a big, immovable desk as focal point. One of our first decisions was to create a movable teacher “triage” zone in the front of the room for whole-class direct instruction and have a teacher table on casters in the back of the room, one that the students could use if they needed it. These smaller teacher footprints allow for flexibility and maximize floor space for student seating.
Words such as “subtract” and “narrow” resonated, too, and speak to the importance of minimalism in learning spaces. Dillon says that classroom clutter is overstimulating to students’ brains, and this includes the “visual clutter” of busy bulletin boards, anchor charts, and posters all over the room. A rainbow of colors has the same counterproductive effect. Therefore, storage and seating for learning became the focus, not decorating (Goodbye, Pinterest). The room needed serious cosmetic upgrades anyway, so when we chose the finishes and color palette, we opted for toned-down, but still appropriately stimulating, with a nod toward North’s colors.
Mix up your seating options had the biggest implications because of the potential cost of new furniture, as well as the necessary shift in classroom management and instruction. But this upgrade connects to others on Dr. Dillon’s list, specifically, 6, 7, 8, and 9, which all have to do with where and how students learn—and create—best. One-size-fits-all board-oriented desks in rows = drudgery, according to Dillon, et al. Some people call them “graveyard rows.” Every day, great teachers make the most of desks with different configurations, but what if an English classroom offered even more flexibility?
One upgrade still in the incubator is writable spaces. We almost went with dry-erase desktops, but Anne said they lacked durability. Stay tuned. To showcase student learning, we are foregoing a bulletin board for now, and instead, will utilize a wall in the hallway, as well as leverage technology by publishing student writing to the English Department’s Pride in Our Writers online showcase.
Our design plan, although informed by abundant Dr. Bob Dillon podcasts, was focused in scope. Dillon’s 12 principles were ultimately distilled into 3 priorities: infrastructure, minimalism, and student seating.
In my next post, I will elaborate on the student seating decisions and why we think they will benefit our students in terms of collaboration, comfort, and choice.