Have Your Students Help You Design the Learning Environment

You may be familiar with the idea of student-centered learning. The core idea is simple: student engagement and student learning outcomes are superior if the focus of instruction is on the student rather than on the teacher. While all sorts of instructional methods and approaches can fit under the banner of student-centered learning, they all have one thing in common: they emphasize the needs of each individual student. Student-centered learning approaches have shown impressive results, most likely because they increase student engagement in the learning process.

While the idea of student-centered learning has made strong inroads in the education community, there is one area to which it is not normally applied. That area is the design of the learning environment. Usually, that topic is the sole domain of the teacher. But is that approach really justified? After all, the physical environment of the classroom not only has a strong psychological impact on students, but their ability—or inability—to contribute to its design impacts how they perceive the classroom environment.

So there is a good case to be made for involving students in the design of the learning environment. For example, a teacher might institute a “bring your own chair” program where students might select the kind of chair that they find most comfortable. Depending on the classroom situation, this might involve a student literally bringing their own chair or, more likely, selecting a chair from many different options that the teacher makes available. Comfort and choice can go a long way toward engaging students in the life of the classroom.

Teachers can also invite their students to consider the nearly infinite possibilities for classroom arrangement. This can become a lesson in civics, architecture and design, and community problem-solving, with a strong collaborative element. Again, when students are invited to contribute to the environment, they are likely to feel more invested in what happens there.

Involving students in the design of the learning space also creates opportunities to explore student diversity in interesting ways. For example, some students need an environment with minimal distractions, while others perform better with an energetic thrum surrounding them. How can these two different needs be reconciled? Can the classroom be designed in a way that accommodates both kinds of students? Similarly, students from different backgrounds will have different expectations about personal space, organization, and a variety of other design elements. Taking all of these factors into consideration is certainly a daunting task, but one that will create many intriguing learning opportunities and, ideally, lead to maximizing the design of the learning space.

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