How to make better decisions when designing a learning space

Use these tips to design a learning space with greater intention and ensure students are learning as much as possible.

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_ There’s no rule that says learning spaces have to look like a traditional classroom.
_ In fact, most learning spaces aren’t set up to serve students or their learning model.
_ Here are some tips for how to design a learning space with greater intention.

Let’s say you want to design a learning space. Maybe you’re envisioning something close to this: a classroom with a chalkboard at one end, desks arranged in rows, decor on the walls, and a teacher at the head of the class.

There’s no rule that says learning spaces have to be designed like this. And there’s decades of research suggesting it’s not even an effective or healthy way to organize the space.

So why is it so common?

The long answer has to do with the role education served for a couple hundred years in America—namely, turning children into obedient working-class citizens. But the shorter answer is: because people don’t even recognize there could be a better way.

This “better way” would mean organizing a learning environment around what students actually need. It would start with thinking about what the point of education is, what type of experiences are good for students, and the learning environments that are right for giving them those experiences.

Obviously, such a process requires more thought than replicating the typical classroom setup. But thankfully, it doesn’t require more money or resources—just some first principles to be able to figure out what’s important and what’s not.

For any educator or leader, here’s how to make better decisions when designing a learning space.

What is a learning space?

It’s not worth getting too complicated here: Any space where learning happens is technically a learning space.

But practically speaking, whether learning can happen in, say, a classroom or a garage or a computer lab is a matter of what goes into that space. 

In Delray Beach, Florida, Kurani created a learning space called the Study Lounge—something akin to a WeWork for teenagers.

This includes the interior design, such as the colors, materials, walls, and room dividers; the technology and tools, like computers or projection screen; and even the exterior design of the building, such as windows and outside views.

In other words, a learning space isn’t just the room where it happens. The “space” in this case really refers to the room plus everything that room is filled with. 

Why the learning space matters

In traditional schools, there are rows of homogeneous classrooms, a cafeteria, gymnasium, and library. How students interact with and feel about those spaces influences how well they learn in any other space in the environment. They aren’t separate. The experience is all connected. 

For example, if the school amplifies noise in the wrong ways or the air quality is poor, students could spend the entire day battling headaches, stress, and distractions. 

For any learning environment you’re designing, you must bring these unintended consequences to the surface and protect against them—especially considering students spend, on average, 15,000 hours in school by the time they graduate high school. This time is a critical period for the student’s physical, social, and emotional development. 

Researchers have identified many of these consequences already:

These are just a handful of findings. Research shows that poor learning environments hurt students (and teachers) in many ways, including their mood, alertness, confidence, safety, comfort, focus, sense of equity, creativity, inspiration, behavior, learning effectiveness, and overall ambition. Poor learning environments also increase teacher turnover and may reduce student enrollment numbers. 

Most of these are real-time effects, too. They don’t take days or weeks to manifest. Any time a student is in a poor learning environment, their health, performance, and development are suffering.

On the other hand, accounting for these effects can give your students an advantage.

Now that you know the full scope of how learning environments affect the students who use them, you can start doing some designing.

How to design a positive learning space

The first mistake a lot of people make when designing a learning space is moving too quickly. They see a blank canvas and want to go, go, go. Do your best to avoid this impulse. Don’t rush into picking out modular furniture or brightly colored paint just yet. It’s important to be intentional with your design. 

To do that, start with some orienting questions: 

  1. Who, exactly, am I designing for?
  2. What learning experience do I want to support?
  3. What problems am I trying to solve?
  4. What do students (and educators) need from their learning space?

How you answer those questions will lead you to design choices you might not have considered if you’d just jumped right in. Without thinking about your desired learning experience, you might start designing a cool space for group work, but later realize you actually want to encourage independent study. And now what you have doesn’t work.

At Kurani, we’ve met plenty of ambitious leaders who crave certain designs simply because they’re trendy. When we dig a little deeper into what they need, it becomes clear the trends are just eye candy. And usually, the leader ends up thanking us for guiding them toward a more appropriate design that’s personalized to their program and people.

Most schools have hallways. At Khan Lab School we made an “in-life” decision to eliminate hallways so that students get to working areas by walking through a central commons.

We call this making “in-life” decisions. They are the opposite of “in-store” decisions, like when you’re at Home Depot picking between a silver or gold faucet. You’re so busy racking your brain trying to decide which one looks better, you don’t think to consider which one will help you live better—an “in-life” decision. 

When you’re designing a learning space, try using an “in-life” approach. This is part of what it means to be intentional with your design. If you’re tempted to go with furniture or decor that looks cool or trendy, ask yourself, What exactly do staff and students need to be able to accomplish? What type of space layout, furnishings, technology, and lighting would enable them to do that? 

Now look at what you’re tempted to buy. Do those choices make life easier, or do they just get in the way? What sacrifices are you making, to your available space and budget, if you go with those items? 

But remember: Furniture doesn’t complete a learning space. Neither does the decor, nor the lighting. No single element will “make” your space. Effective learning spaces are the sum of many smaller decisions that work together. So, take it piece by piece.

This usually helps: Find a sheet of paper and make a list of all the things you want learners and educators to be able to accomplish. Also list the challenges that prevent them from doing those things well. Then, start brainstorming solutions. 

While designing, keep in mind what’s in your architectural toolkit: walls, windows, floors, ceiling, lighting, acoustics, audio-visual systems, furniture, colors, graphics and visuals, and layout. 

Pretty soon, the building blocks of a design will begin to emerge, and you can use these blocks to start creating a space that’s uniquely suited to your students and goals.

In the Connected Rural Classroom, the layout plus every material, piece of furniture, and color was chosen to support the desired learning experience for students in rural American schools.

At its core, design is a process of reflection and discovery. Good designs emerge naturally based on what makes sense for the people using a space.

Many important design considerations can come from your own brain. Some more nuanced elements of design require finding an expert who’s designed learning spaces before. Their expertise can serve as an added boost to get you to a design that’s even more personalized and effective. 

If you want to maximize your space and student experience and decide to hire a designer, don’t fall for a designer who copies popular design trends or tries to sell you on a design that’s “inspired by” something symbolic, like a wavy ceiling just because you’re near the ocean. These types of designs may make for good conversation, but they certainly won’t make for good places to learn.

On the other hand, if you’ve figured out what your needs are, you’ve armed yourself with valuable information. 

Now that you know what experiences you want people to have in your space, you can figure out what the space should include. You’ve improved the quality of your decision making because you’ve thought about the users of the space first. And whether you DIY the space or hire a designer, you can feel more confident because you know the end result will only move you closer to where you want to go.