What higher education can learn from kindergarten classroom design
by Rebecca Berry
“It’s impossible to learn very much simply by sitting in a lecture.” — Richard Feynman
For decades, the classroom was a place where the teacher — the imparter of knowledge — stood at the front of room purveying information to the pupil. The learning spaces themselves reflected this one-way flow of knowledge that dominated our learning culture.
In the early 20th century, however, Maria Montessori radically changed educational convention in her home country of Italy. She introduced the child, rather than the educator, as the center of the education process and called for their physical environment to better support their learning. The classroom was a “prepared environment,” where learning materials for children to experience were readily available. The child’s inherent engagement with these materials would then aid in their “auto education,” where the child engages in exploration with other learners, acquiring the knowledge and skills to thrive in the world.
Although it was embraced initially in the United States, it quickly faded and did not reappear until the 1960s. To this day, Montessori’s ideas dominate the design of early education spaces: Classrooms have areas and materials adapted to different learning styles and create a learner-centered environment. The success of this model in early education has helped it grow beyond kindergarten and into the early grades of elementary school, but middle school, high school, and undergraduate higher education have been slower to follow suit.
Traditional lecture halls make group interactions difficult. Students are not able to work together, and opportunities for peer-to-peer learning are diminished. Moreover, the educator cannot move about and engage directly with students, and students themselves are unable to engage directly with the teacher — rather, they raise their hand in a sea of hundreds.
Studies overwhelmingly show that active learning improves students’ retention of information and critical thinking skills. In higher education settings, particularly at the graduate and doctoral level, faculty often break up lectures with pauses, demonstrations, videos, and group work to promote higher-order thinking, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in their classes.
Today, the widespread inclusion of technology in K-12 and higher education, coupled with high-speed Wi-Fi renders everywhere a learning space. If learners now set the pace, working where and how they wish, how can our learning environments best support this self-direction?
Kindergarten students can sit in a quiet corner, work at a table with a small group, gather round a screen with headphones, and quickly shift their attention to the teacher who moves among them. These same types of activities can be encouraged in a flexible university classroom with breakout areas in the adjacent corridor, or within a university library and common areas of residence halls. Spaces that facilitate varied learning modalities and support active learning throughout the campus are key to allowing the student to flourish.
Finegold Alexander Architects is currently working with Boston University (BU) on projects that allow learners to flourish. This includes renovation of a major floor of Kilachand Hall — home to the Honors College — which provides group, individual study, and instruction areas. Creative plan configuration and spaces which are equipped with movable furniture and writable surfaces support many modes of learning. The Honors College director wanted to ensure students could be both “in their heads” — thinking deeply — and doing so with other students. Why? Because working with others is key to solving today’s problems. In addition, the Learning Resource Center for BU’s Medical Campus will enable quiet, heads-down thinking with both large carrels that shield the learner from distractions, or “pods” that enable a feet-up, kick-back approach. Spaces for small group meetings and napping — yes, napping — are provided! Everyone needs to recharge to flourish.
As learning environment designers, we create spaces that facilitate deep thinking, encourage critical problem solving, and engage learners to solve society’s most urgent challenges.
Doing so requires returning to principles for early childhood education, fostering wonder and engagement. Let’s get back to what works, even if it means we go back to kindergarten.
Rebecca Berry is president of Finegold Alexander Architects.