by Michael Lawson
Classrooms teach too! Most often they reflect the industrial revolution’s preoccupation with mass production. Architects draw lines on paper based on assumptions about presentation models of teaching. They calculate room capacity based on standardized allotments, which typically err on the stingy side. After all, how much room does a person need to sit and listen? None of my doctoral courses in education ever touched on room configuration. Nor did we ever meet in a room thoughtfully prepared for graduate interaction. Throughout my academic training, rooms were assigned places for students to sit, listen, and write notes (or doodle in my case). I assumed fixed seating, massive podiums, and dirty blackboards had some connection to learning. Room arrangement was just not my problem!
It never occurred to me that rooms could actually be designed to promote student learning rather than teacher talking. My first exposure to creative educational space allocation came through ICL and Sunday School Standards.1 In the 1970s, Lowell Brown and Gospel Light teamed up to offer Sunday school training seminars around the country. His book provided objective quality measurements to improve learning in Sunday school. Gospel Light designed their curriculum to reflect the active learning model used in the training. His book showed several possible room configurations other than rows facing a front wall. The seminar demonstrated how the configurations promoted student learning. Their design assumed volunteer students who vote with their feet. As the seminars moved from church to church, the leaders were faced with various classroom settings. They showed how to reconfigure the space to reflect the learning activities planned for the hour. They paid attention to podiums that created barriers between students and teachers.2 Black or whiteboards were scrupulously cleaned and dressed with a few carefully chosen, artfully printed phrases. Strategically placed posters reinforced central lesson ideas. Handouts were thoughtfully placed on student chairs or tables. Students arrived to a room sending a different message, a message that created anticipation.
I have since learned to pay attention to focal points and traffic flow. Where is the natural focal point of the room? Are the chairs oriented for proper sight lines? Remember, well-meaning custodians, whose main concern is vacuuming, set up most rooms. On the facing page is an actual classroom designed by a licensed architect and set up by some well-meaning person without regard for focal points or traffic flow.
Note the following problems:
- Students in the section on the left face a blank wall.
- The podium is mounted permanently into the floor, which prevents any realignment.
- The door to the next classroom robs wall space for visuals.
- The room works great when chairs are flush against tables, but when filled with students it becomes congested as student bodies take up space and prevent access to seats closer to the windows.
- Students seated on the right side of rows have no egress without disturbing an entire row. This assumes students do not need to take care of unexpected personal hygiene issues.
- The supposed aisle on the right near the window is practically useless because of the seats blocking the back row.
To make this room more student friendly, utilizing the natural focal point and easing congestion, the following adjustments could be made:
- Unbolt the podium from the floor, and make the podium movable.
- Reorient the room to the more natural focal point between the windows.
- Rearrange the tables to provide shorter rows and more aisles.
- Eight seats are lost, from the previous model, but the space is overcrowded anyway in my opinion.
- Often, ten to twelve square feet per adult is considered adequate and works if sitting and listening is planned. For table projects, discussion groups, and a myriad of other learning activities, I prefer twenty to twenty-five square feet per person.3
- This room still reflects a presentation model of learning. A collaborative model requires students seated around tables and allows for fewer seats.
- In reality, students almost never sit in the front rows unless the room is at capacity.
Under severe space limitations, I have used standing conversations or allowed students to find spaces outside the classroom. This latter option works if the discussion takes an extended period of time. In any case, whatever we do to improve the classroom space will communicate our desire to help students enjoy their learning experience.
Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from Michael S. Lawson’s The Professor’s Puzzle: Teaching in Christian Academics (B&H Academic, 2015). Lawson serves as senior professor of educational ministries and leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary and coordinator of the doctor of educational ministries degree.
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1 Lowell Brown, Sunday School Standards (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 1986). I still use his book although I prefer the revised edition, which offers a handy synthetic chart not available in the first edition.
2 In my fifty years as a churchman, I have observed that many (most) adult Sunday school teachers model a downsized sermon. While I applaud their willingness to serve, their lack of training as either preachers or educators has limited the effectiveness of adult education in the churches. I have also observed they are the most resistive group to training as they presumably know how to teach having been exposed to much schooling.
3 The ten-to-twelve-foot allocation is based on the number of chairs that will fit in the room. The only realistic way to evaluate a room’s capacity is to fill it with appropriate furniture configurations, equipment, and students until everyone feels crowded, then subtract until the room feels comfortable. Divide the square feet inside the room by the number of adults. This will provide a much more realistic allocation than the numbers architects assign.