Designing Learning Spaces for Student Engagement

Teacher and former interior designer Erin Klein argues that students must have a voice in how they learn, and part of that involves listening to their needs when it comes to classroom design — for comfort, engagement and empowerment.

Designing Learning Spaces for Student Engagement

Classroom design naturally unlocks — or stifles — student engagement and empowerment in a way few other things can, according to Erin Klein. Klein is a teacher with a previous background in interior design and an author of various books and articles about how areas like design and technology intersect with education. She also delivered the closing keynote address earlier this month at this year’s CUE conference.

THE Journal: It seems like people can mean a lot of different things when they talk about empowering someone, from instilling them with confidence to helping them fight social narratives in their own heads to helping them gain or learn to use tools to solve problems. What do you mean when you talk about empowering students?

Erin Klein

Klein: When I think about empowering students, one of the foundational pieces that comes to mind is listening to the student’s voice and valuing that. I think when you give students, no matter how young or what grade level they are, a platform where their voice can be heard they instantly increase engagement. They feel valued. They feel like what they’re learning matters because what they have to contribute matters. So I think that that’s the most important part. And you know as adults if we think about what empowers us most it’s often times where we feel included or a valuable part of something.

So, in the classroom — so often I think not done intentionally — but I think just with the demands of the curriculum and the pace of the day, oftentimes educators get tied up in doing most of the talking, in doing most of the instructing where  there can actually be a great deal learned from kind of pulling back a little and letting the students take charge and allowing their voice to be heard. I think that would be most important, really just listening to the students and letting them add and shape the discussion.

THE Journal: When I think of empowering students, building relationships and the importance of class design, it makes sense how any two of those three snaps together, but somehow the relationship between all three is a little less intuitive. Can you talk a little about how these ideas all inform one another or intersect?

Klein: It started actually in my second-grade classroom through having conversations and building relationships with my students in our daily class meetings. As I would get to know my new group of learners that first week or two of school, one of the conversations organically just turned into, “How do you learn best, and what sort of environments do you like? What makes you most comfortable?” And it was interesting that overwhelmingly the response from all of my students was they really want to be comfortable physically whenever they’re learning and they said sometimes it’s just hard to focus if the table’s too tall or the chair is too hard.

You know, at first I just kind of chuckled inside because it reminded me of Goldilocks, but then it made perfect sense. So I started thinking about the importance of classroom design and what factors that could play in terms of learning. Prior to doing teaching I studied interior design as a career, so I started implementing some of my design background into the classroom and it just sort of magically started transforming the way I was teaching.

I have a background in reading and writing workshops, so I’m used to just having natural conversations with students and taking learners where they are and really differentiating and personalizing instruction, and it seems to me that everything I was trying to do was inhibited by the desks and the physical landscape of the classroom space. But once I made the classroom more comfortable — and it was through building those relationships with my kids where I got some of the greatest advice for doing that — I started just to change the landscape of the furniture in my room and the layout and orientation. And then I was able to more freely move around the classroom, the students were able to work in groups or partnerships more easily, and other teachers were able to push in and help and assist as needed, and everything was a lot more flexible in the classroom.

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