Mulgrave School classroom interior

Classroom Transformation

As we witness radical change in what we’re learning and how we learn, the spaces in which we learn are going through equally radical change.

The traditional view of education has been that of a one-way process through which an educator stands before a class to disseminate information for the students to absorb. The next step would then be for the students to undertake related assignments, usually individually, on the various topics they’ve been absorbing.

In 1956, American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom developed a set of three hierarchal models to aid in the classification of educational learning objectives. The cognitive branch of what has become known as ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ became a tool widely used to structure curricula in traditional education systems. In 2001, Anderson and Krathwohl revised the cognitive domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy to reflect the different stages of learning.

According to Bloom, students are required at the most basic level to remember, so as to recall facts and basic concepts; and then to use this information to understand and explain; apply this understanding to new situations; draw connections through analysis; evaluate and justify certain positions; and finally produce original work.

Classroom teaching traditionally involved the first and second ‘remembering’ and ‘understanding’ components, while students would be tasked to independently work on the more complex ‘application’, ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation’, typically through projects and assignments. Creating original work — arguably the pinnacle of academic achievement — had become widely associated with postgraduate study, and oftentimes viewed as a requisite to earn a degree such as a doctorate.

Views on education have since evolved to incorporate a more dynamic process offering students a more interactive learning experience.

The ‘Flipped Classroom’ concept, for example, turns Bloom’s Taxonomy on its head by challenging students to apply, analyze, evaluate and create in class, after having familiarized themselves with the content independently. This approach demands a reimagination of the learning space — a departure from the traditional auditorium intended for a one-to-many style of communication. The nature of the students’ investigative activities requires the accommodation of high levels of interaction and formation of small groups.

Similarly, ‘active learning’ pedagogies encourage participation, thinking and analysis. Instead of listening passively, students gather data, apply concepts, hold discussions and explore solutions to problems. Studies suggest that increased engagement makes for more effective learning and higher levels of achievement.

Finally, the ‘Meddler in the Middle’ approach sees the teacher assume the role of a facilitator inspiring and guiding students in their journey to further explore and apply the knowledge they have acquired. Again, as opposed to commanding a stage to lecture an audience, the teacher actively mediates the learning experience.

Another way that teaching has evolved is through rapid technological advances. One clear example of how technology has impacted teaching spaces is computer labs. Over the past 30 or so years, we have witnessed the rise and fall of the computer lab. The need for a space with 20+ identical devices has now seen a shift in favor of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approach. Another example from health education is the increased use of more complex and life-like dummies for simulation exercises, which is allowing more students than ever to gain practical experience. Also, the introduction and widespread adoption of 3D printing across different industries is being reflected in classroom activity. The ability to design and prototype has never been more readily available or economical.

Technological breakthroughs have also played a key role in the global reach of education and will continue to do so. Video conferencing capability now enables sharing information with otherwise isolated communities in real time. Better internet connectivity has come to mean increased opportunities for collaboration due to fewer limitations on knowledge equality and rapid information sharing.

A classroom can accordingly be viewed as being made up of several layers — a first layer of students and educators who are physically present in the classroom, a second layer of those viewing and contributing remotely, and a final third layer made up of those who may return to view a recorded session after it has already been conducted.

What does this radical shift in education approaches mean for architecture? Traditional education establishments have for a long time based their practices around conventional auditoria, lecture theatres and classrooms. The change in thinking around the education process will undoubtedly reflect on the types of spaces available to accommodate the nature of the new activities, rendering some of the spaces less useful.

Mulgrave High School in Vancouver, Canada, is a great example of education spaces that are stimulating, welcoming, flexible and that support quality learning. Its classrooms offer flexible configurations to support various learning styles. Technology allows for further flexibility in instruction and learning. Non-linear circulation elements are surrounded by niches for collaboration and socializing.

Some existing conventional learning spaces may be repurposed to allow for flexibility to conduct different activities including lecturing, exploratory exercises, breakout group sessions and presentations. New designs will have to be mindful of this shift impacting how we learn and the architectural spaces, furniture and technology we need to support this process.

One example of spaces reimagined to accommodate university-level education, training and research are those at the Westmead Education and Conference Centre (WECC). The cutting-edge learning spaces support dialogue at multiple scales, offer maximum flexibility to support active learning, encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, and deliver an engaging and efficient environment with spaces for learning, collaboration and socializing.

While it is most likely that the foreseeable future will still see a need for spaces for the traditional dissemination of information, the more interactive emergent approaches require spaces that not only accommodate but spark and stimulate group activity.