What would appear to be an ordinary Math lesson on creating bar graphs looks anything but typical in the grade four classroom at John Knox Christian School in Oakville. A few students can be found working quietly on the carpet at the back of the room, others are standing to do their work at a raised table along the wall, and a larger group of students collaborate on a comfy blue couch near the window.
Even more noticeable when entering Calvin VanHarten’s classroom is the fact that there are no rows of desks or plastic chairs, and no place that each student can claim as their “home base”. Instead, VanHarten has deliberately designed his classroom to include a variety of learning environments for his students that look and feel much more like home.
Classroom design and intentional learning spaces are something that Calvin VanHarten has been thinking about for a few years already. It began when he taught in Japan for two years, and noticed something different about the classrooms there.
“Although they are still very ‘row and column’ kind of people [in Japan], their schools are designed very differently. It looks and feels like a house inside. The floors are nicely polished wood, and the kids take off their shoes at the entrance and change into 上履き (indoor shoes). They keep a lot of plants inside, there are huge windows with coverings, and the design inside is very homey.”
From Japan, VanHarten moved to British Columbia to teach for a year. While there, he was exposed to the Project Based Learning (PBL) approach to teaching students, and he immediately began to put his ideas about this new teaching style together with his thoughts on classroom design.
“The more I began to use a PBL approach in my teaching, the more I realized that having desks in rows and columns is not conducive to group work and creating projects. I was constantly pushing desks out of the way to make room for work spaces, and I found that very frustrating.”
VanHarten began re-imagining the design of a classroom for his students. He wanted to find ways to bring together comfort and usable learning spaces—not always an easy task in today’s classrooms.
“When I think about kids sitting in blue plastic chairs all day every day, that’s six or seven hours of being fairly uncomfortable. I would hate it. When I do my work, I don’t ever sit in plastic chairs; I sit on a couch, or I sit in Starbucks, or I move to a variety of different places. Being in the same place all day makes the kids get wiggly and they start to lose their focus. They get less work done that way.”
The goal for VanHartan’s classroom this year was to create spaces where students would be able to work comfortably, but also to provide learning spaces that were conducive to each different type of learner. For those who need to stand and wiggle, he wanted room for them to stand and wiggle. For those who are easily distracted, he tried to create places for them to go where there are less distractions.
“I tried to mimic places in the home that I like to work around: the kitchen table, a couch, a reading area where you can even lie down if you wish, lots of plants—homey kind of spots.”
The result of his efforts was a room with several distinct learning spaces: a presentation area with risers for students to sit on as he teaches his lessons, which can also used for peer presentations; a carpeted reading area lined with pillows, cushions, and plenty of books on shelves to read; a mini-classroom style area with 5 or 6 desks for students to work at when needed; a nicely-lit area along the windows that resembles an outdoor patio or sun-room, complete with couches, a round coffee table, and artificial grass; and several sporadic working tables, one of which is a standing table for those students who prefer to stand rather than sit while doing their work.
[caption id=”attachment_12236” align=”alignleft” width=”300”] Library Area[/caption]
[caption id=”attachment_12234” align=”alignleft” width=”300”] VIP chairs[/caption]
[caption id=”attachment_12233” align=”alignleft” width=”300”] Desk Area[/caption]
[caption id=”attachment_12232” align=”alignleft” width=”300”] Outdoors Area[/caption]
Of course, there were some challenges that needed to be overcome with the new classroom design. An immediate concern that arose with getting rid of desks in the classroom was the question of where students were going to keep their “stuff”. VanHarten decided to create cubby spaces for textbooks, duo tangs, and pencil cases that are easily accessible to the students when they need them. He also keeps a communal area at the back of the room stocked with pencils, erasers, and other supplies that students can use when needed.
Ryan, one of the students in VanHarten’s grade four class, echoed this initial concern. “At first I was a little worried because I didn’t have a desk, and a desk is like my “spot. It feels comfortable having your own spot in a classroom because that’s what we’re used to; but then we got cubbies for our stuff, and now we have a cool room with lots of places to sit where it’s most comfortable for us to learn or to work. I love it!”
Having a hard surface to write on is key for students to do their written work neatly—another obstacle that needed a resolution in the absence of classroom desks. The grade four students at John Knox Christian School are quick to demonstrate the solution to this problem—the lap desk. These handy portable surfaces are stored in a wooden bin in the classroom and are always available for students to take with them to any of the learning areas where a hard, smooth surface is not available.
“I love the lap desks,” shares Julia. “You can just sit anywhere, like on the couches or the carpet or wherever you want that’s comfy to do your work.”
Another important thing VanHarten needed to consider when creating smaller learning spaces was the fact that there would still need to be an area that was conducive to teaching the whole class at once. He decided to set up three sets of risers near the Smart Board at the front of the classroom. The risers take up less room than rows of desks, and provide a framework for the presentation area of the classroom.
“What’s really great about these [risers] that I’ve discovered,”shares VanHarten, “is that when three quarters of the class understands the lesson that I’ve taught, I can send them off to work somewhere else, and this remains a learning area where I can teach the remaining quarter of the students that still need help understanding the lesson. I can keep talking to them, and I’m not distracting those who have begun to do their work.”
“If you have rows of desks in front of you, and you have students spread out sporadically that don’t understand the lesson, you are distracting those who are working while you go over the same concept that they already understand,” he concludes. “This way, they can go out to different spots in the classroom to work.”
This is the first year that VanHarten has set up the classroom this way, and he is happy with the results so far. His students seem equally enthusiastic about the new classroom design.
“It’s really cool that we don’t have desks,” shares Reese. “We can just spread ourselves out anywhere in the room that we want.” She adds, “It’s nice that we can work beside our best friends all the time.”
Lily shared that she really likes the fact that they are never forced to sit in specific places or seats in the classroom, and that there isn’t a seating plan. She pointed out that, “we get risers, which are cool…and there are a lot of really awesome chairs, and it’s a really cozy classroom.”
Ryan agrees. “I like it that we have all the different spots and we don’t have to work in the same space all the time.” His favorite place to work is near the windows. “I like it because I like the grass carpet. And I like being in the corner where you can just see the two couches and the table in the middle. It doesn’t look like you’re in a classroom.”
Parents have also been supportive of the newly designed classroom.
According to VanHarten, “They reacted well. I think at the beginning they had their concerns about whether it was going to be disorganized, about how their kids would adjust to not working in desks, and whether there were going to be too many distractions for them to be able to do their work properly—those sorts of things.
“As time has gone on, the arrangement has proven itself, and I’ve had full support of the parents behind me.”
VanHarten is quick to admit that the concept requires a lot of hard work in September. Establishing routines and ground rules are critical in order for the classroom to function and not become chaotic.
“At the beginning of the school year, I go over and over and over the ways that students need to act within this kind of learning environment. I am quick to ask students to move to a new area if they misuse their freedom in a certain spot.
“It does require a lot of work at the very beginning. If I don’t stay on top of things, it could turn out to be a huge mess. There is too much freedom built into this type of classroom environment to allow for that to happen.”
VanHarten feels thankful for how well his first attempt at creating new learning spaces in the classroom has gone. He plans to continue to build on his ideas and improve these spaces in the upcoming years, incorporating suggestions from students and modifications that he feels are needed after this pilot year.
When asked what his dreams are for improving the use of his spaces, VanHarten is quick to admit that his current spaces are lacking in one area: technology.
“If I’m dreaming, then I’d love for each of the students to have an iPad. Technology in the classroom would make a huge difference, and computers are not really conducive to the environment that I’ve tried to set up here.”
Other elements that VanHarten would love to add are decor items such as drapes on the windows, pictures on the walls, and a lot more plant life.
“Anything is welcome really,” he concludes with a smile, “as long as it makes the room look less industrial and ‘school-ish’, and more like home.”