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Learning space design the 2X2-W way

In my current role, I spend about 90% of my time working with adult learners, and in that capacity, the “classrooms” are often conference and workshop spaces, which tend to be flexible in use and variable in design. Unlike a classroom where there may be only a few classes using that space over the course of a year, and where only one specific age group may “live” in that space for months at a time, when considering space design for adult learners, we are often left with both the advantages and disadvantages that fluidity of learners (and learning) provides.

And yet, learning space design -- whether for adult learners or our youngest students -- has a lot in common. Before serving in regional leadership roles, I was a middle-school science teacher, regularly contemplating how best to design my space to fit the needs of my students.

How can we maximize the design of our learning spaces to have the greatest impact on furthering learning? Here are four important decision points, based on the 2x2-W’s of space design, that I’ve come to realize are incredibly important considerations when thinking about student learning, regardless of the age group of those students.

Who is using the space? Our learning audience is a huge consideration. In my book, "Professional Development That Sticks," I discuss the need to make sure that learning and the mode(s) in which it is engaged in, are wholly dependent on those who will be doing the learning. This guiding principle doesn’t change with the age of the learners; no matter who is in the room, we have to consider the space as if it were a home for those who will be living in it, even if they are only joining us for a short while. We tend to learn best when our learning spaces mirror those spaces that we would be most comfortable in. While this varies for each of us, the need for comfortable seating, adequate table space, ease of movement, and appropriate temperatures are necessary foundations, even before we start thinking about furniture location, material usage and timing. Because learning won’t happen if people aren’t present, we need to constantly be willing to put this question at the forefront of our space design thinking.

Why are they using it? Like the previous question, this is one that must be answered at the outset, and often, at exactly the same time as answering who is utilizing the space (note: I struggled with which of these two questions to list first; the “why” is always an incredibly important consideration, and yet, as a relational leader, I felt I had to list the “who” prior. Feel free to disagree if you like). Having an understanding of true purpose is akin to painting on a canvas. Without the canvas, none of the paint will have a place to land, and therefore, nowhere to stick. So much the same with learning. In all cases, learning design must follow our rationale. This means that when we set up our learning spaces we must make sure that they are in agreement with the goals that we have for our schools, districts and agencies. Otherwise, the disconnect between the “why” and the “what” will not only make it more difficult for our audience to engage, but will also make it near impossible to reach the benchmarks that our community has set.

When are they using it? The second tier of questions is no less important, but often better to save for asking until we’ve answered the “who” and the “why.” When the space will be used plays a large role in determining learning space design. Our rhythms change with the time of day, and therefore, so should our spaces. In addition, our minds are constantly racing, even if we’ve cleared them. And our thoughts, just like the temperature on a given day, change and fluctuate as the hours move on. We must consider how our learning spaces are in tune (or not) with the time of day and our needs from morning to night. Designing our learning locations to fit what we need to keep going (and learning) at a given point is the key to reaching seamless learning rather than stressful learning.

What are they using it for? This is an important question, but one that often answers itself with the other three in place, or one that requires more supportive action-taking than true questioning. The logistical nature of the “what,” can allow it to be answered last, and in that frame, serves as a good check to make sure that we truly are prepared to serve the learners in our audience in a way that meets the rationale and fits the timing.

While learning space design looks and feels different based on the variety of learners we work with on a daily basis, our thinking and way of approaching it can be addressed through a few important (though not always simple) questions. Whether using a frame of reference such as the (2x2)W’s, or some other method to help you ask the right questions when you need to ask them, the key is that we have to make sure that our learning space is structured for the learner, not necessarily the space itself.

And the questions we ask are the guide to get us there.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website: www.fredende.com.

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