It’s ironic. We’ve become a boundless, infinitely connected planet. Yet our need for clearly defined physical spaces that contain and direct us – rooms, pods, zones, nooks – is stronger than ever.

The same is true in education.

Creating specific learning zones within classrooms and throughout schools is now seen as essential to foster 21st Century high impact learning. For educators, this isn’t entirely new news. But it does present challenges – and opportunities for creative solutions.

This blog post shares insights on the topic from two influential thinkers:  Sean Tracy (AIA and CEFP) and Steve Pryor. Sean has over 20 years of experience as an architect of award-winning K-12 and higher education facilities. He is director of education for the Florida branch of BRPH, an international architectural, engineering design and construction services firm. Steve is director of product design and education development with Smith System, a K-12 furniture manufacturer.

Recently, Sean and his BRPH colleague, Barry Sallas, along with Steve, presented “Impacting Student Outcomes through Architecture & Design” at the summer 2015 conference of the Florida Educational Facilities Planners’ Association. The Q&A with Sean and Steve that follows includes key highlights from that valuable presentation.

Q: First, what is the profile of today’s learners?

Sean:  They’re connected and like instant access to information. They’re comfortable in real and virtual spaces, and prefer interactive and social activities where they have a voice. They’re also good with self-directed tasks and quickly adapt to emerging technologies. This fast-on-your-feet thinking is important, because most of the jobs today’s kids will encounter in the future, haven’t been invented yet.

Q: From an educational space planning perspective, how have designers responded?

Sean:  In the past 20 years, I’ve seen an increase in the need for flexible spaces that meet multiple intelligences and learning styles. Kids learn in many different ways, beyond just “cells and bells” classrooms.

Steve:  I’ve seen a sharp rise in the desire to support collaborative learning or other project-based learning systems by creating classroom learning zones. These spaces empower students to be active participants in the learning process.

Q: You each have a unique vantage point in viewing learning zones. How do you define them?

Sean: Learning zones can occur anywhere within a school, including exterior spaces. There’s less rigid thinking now, and we want to encourage spontaneous interactions. We’re not telling kids that “food is here; learning is here.” Technology, especially Wi-Fi, has redefined learning environments. Even very small spaces and hallways can now be valuable learning zones, as long as supervision exists.

Steve:  Zoned spaces allow the greatest flexibility and use of existing space within the learning facility. There are zones and sub-group zones. Within a school building, you’re going to find geographical learning zones that are key spaces for active and collaborative learning, such as the media center, lab/maker spaces, social spaces and learning commons. Within the classroom, there are independent learning and group learning zones.

Q: How do classroom learning zones vary across the K-12 environment?

Sean:  Currently, the concept of “zones” or “centers” has been more readily incorporated into the primary grades. These students remain in one or two classrooms throughout the day, so the classrooms tend to need these defined zones. But as students get older, learning becomes more about listening and less about discovery and exploration. Zones for older students – such as the quiet space, the small group space, the demonstration space – are created within specific classrooms or spaces dedicated to a particular subject. In the higher grades, where there is more flexibility of movement, school learning zones also appear in other areas of the building.

Steve:  Elementary schools will have the most zoned space. Students cycle through specific learning centers throughout the day, most often in the classroom or library space. In middle school/jr. high and high school, learning zones are appearing as break away spaces within the classroom during active and collaborative learning exercises.

Q: What factors have driven the creation of classroom learning zones?

Sean:  Education has become a far more complex process than in the last generation. We’ve evolved from a manufacturing-based society to an information-based, global society. We need learning environments that foster higher order thinking skills – analyzing, evaluating and creating, as well as entrepreneurial skills. We want to make deep-dive research and collaboration easier.

Steve: Collaborative learning techniques and personalized learning programs are creating the need for many of the zoned learning spaces we’re seeing.

Q: How can schools use furniture to create effective learning zones, whether in new schools or in districts that can only make a minimal investment?

Sean: Creating specialized space ultimately becomes about the furniture. It’s the tool to delineate spaces. Furniture must be quickly adaptable to create environments for one-to-one, small-group, large-group and project-based learning, as well as lectures, presentations and performances. The classroom must permit transition from lecture-style to learner-led and teacher-guided lessons.

Tables that change height and combine together are a good choice, and so is lighter-weight furniture with wheels for easy maneuverability. You also want school chairs that allow body movement, to help keep minds focused. As adults, we certainly can’t and don’t sit in the same position for hours on end. Neither can kids. Classroom arrangement is important, too. Put the teacher in the midst of the space, not always in front.

Q: Steve, what kind of furniture does Smith System offer to help schools create learning zones?

Steve:  We take design cues from educators and those using classroom spaces. This allows us to offer holistic product solutions for all of the teaching zones within the educational environment. We offer active seating (chairs with various levels of movement) such as Flavors and Noodle; media and café tables with multiple elevations; sensible collaborative furniture shapes, and curriculum-driven storage solutions with our Cascade unit. Casters are always an option.

Q: Do the benefits of learning zones mean the end of traditional classrooms?

Sean: No. There are reasons for lecture-style learning and the standard classroom. But schools should be providing multiple additional spaces for other types of learning. Creating defined (walled) spaces is one way to create learning zones. As I mentioned previously, the other possibility is providing classroom furniture that can easily adapt to the need. But it has to adapt in seconds to maintain the momentum of the lesson. If the teacher loses time and control, the space will revert back to what the teacher knows and understands.

However, I think there’s an opportunity to augment the standard classroom throughout the educational environment and see the benefit of blended spaces in the form of learning commons, active corridors, and curriculum-focused spaces in the interior and exterior of the school.

Q: Is there anything hindering districts or schools from incorporating learning zones, especially within new school designs?

Sean: Yes. There are many facility officers who remember the unsuccessful open classroom concepts of the ‘60s and ‘70s. That has hindered embracing new modalities. Schools do not want to retrofit classrooms or spaces, like they had to the past. As a result, facilities constructed in the last 20 years are not significantly different from those built 75 years ago. But schools can take baby steps toward creating high-impact, cost-effective learning environments. They can test the water with furniture choices and arrangements.

Q: What will K-12 classrooms look like in 20 years? Will they still exist?

Sean:  As we increase our understanding of how people learn, we have the ability to become less rigid. I don’t think we’ll lose school buildings and classrooms, but we will have something that is more comfortable, enjoyable and community oriented. Additionally, architecture and furniture can modify existing facilities to support current and future learning concepts, without requiring a complete rebuild of schools.

Steve:  The future of classroom design will always be driven by the teacher/student relationship, student/student interaction, curriculum requirements and content delivery systems.

Thank you, Sean and Steve!