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How to Make Your Classroom a Thinking Space

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry by Jane Krauss and Suzie Boss. It was published this month by Corwin.

Take a moment and imagine a creative work environment. Don't worry about the kind of work going on. Just focus on the space. Close your eyes and picture it. What is that space like? What does it sound like? How are people interacting? Is there movement? Is there evidence of work in progress? Is it tidy, or busy-messy? Can you imagine working there?

Was your mental picture anything like either of the workspaces shown in these photos? People in both environments appear to be engaged and productive, using flexible, light-filled workspaces that invite collaboration. It's likely that they are accomplishing significant work, too. The image at the the very top of this page is of the Google offices. The one just below was taken at High Tech High, part of a network of public charter schools in San Diego, California. Like many schools emphasizing project-based learning, High Tech High has designed workspaces specifically to foster creativity and innovation, allow for productive collaboration, and showcase student work in curated exhibits.

Photo of High Tech High in San Diego.
Photo credit: High Tech High

Think back to your mental image of a creative workplace. Was the place you imagined a school? If the answer was "no," why not? School is a work place for 55 million people in the United States where 51.5 million student "workers" and 3.5 million teachers are charged with shaping the future. That's a big job. That's work!

Fine-Tune the Physical Environment for PBL

Birkdale Intermediate School in New Zealand has a long tradition of teaching through inquiry projects. A special flag goes up outside the school at the start of each new project to herald the launch of a learning adventure.

This school has intentionally developed a climate and curriculum to encourage deep thinking, which is reflected by the physical environment. Because the school values collaboration, it has built "nests" where small teams can work. Like glass-walled study rooms in a university library, nests are soundproofed spaces tucked between classrooms with windows that allow teachers to keep track of what's happening. Birkdale Principal Richard Coote describes these as "semi-supervised spaces," where up to a dozen students at a time can enjoy a degree of independence. Working in the nest, students might brainstorm solutions to a problem, rehearse for a public presentation, construct a model, or have a script meeting to plan what they will say. They can engage fully in teamwork without disrupting their classmates.

Many schools don't have budgets for this kind of wholesale remodeling. Yet with no-frills classroom makeovers, teachers can better accommodate the needs of project-based learning and teaching. We've seen schools that have painted interior walls with whiteboard paint, creating giant canvases for capturing and sharing ideas. To encourage students to make their thinking visible, some teachers encourage students to write on their desks or the floor with dry-erase markers or provide them with mini-whiteboards cut from melamine shower board to use while tackling problems that may require multiple attempts to solve.

Small adjustments in the learning environment will better accommodate the various tools and patterns of interaction that come into play during projects. Let's look more closely at a few patterns you can expect during projects, along with affordable solutions to accommodate them.

Independent work. A PBL classroom is busy. Sometimes students need "cave" space, a place quiet and free from distraction. Create three-panel cardboard "carrels" to separate desk or tabletop spaces for quiet work.

Partner and small-group work. Collaboration is the norm in the PBL classroom. Furnish with tables or arrange desks into groupings, or "pods." Make room dividers from standing chalkboards or whiteboards. Hang melamine shower panels that not only divide the space but serve as inexpensive whiteboards, too. See the library, hallways, entryways, courtyards, and even the office as potential learning spaces. One principal we know lets students work in his office. (He's a rover who is often in classrooms and hallways.) Set expectations with everyone involved for what happens in these out-of-classroom settings, including how you will monitor student conduct. Gradually release the reins as students demonstrate good self-management in more independent situations.

Check-ins and seminars-for-some. During projects, teachers check in with teams and offer seminar-style lessons on tightly focused topics (for example: how to cite sources for a research project, prepare for an interview with an expert, or make a podcast). Nic Carroll and Kyle Jones, who teach in a PBL studio at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia call their mini-lessons "coffee talks." Optional for all but mandatory for some (based on the teachers' formative assessment), coffee talks are informal and friendly. If your classroom can accommodate soft benches or couches, this arrangement is perfect for mini-lessons and small-group discussions.

Reimagine who the stuff belongs to. We have seen classrooms in which resources are only used by the teacher or under the teacher's direction. Smart boards and document cameras are great for making thinking visible. Are your students using these tools for brainstorming, diagramming, and other kinds of group thinking?

Conversational classroom. Being "front and center" lends authority but can hamper interaction. When you stand at the front of the class, student interaction will tend to flow through you. Change things up. Put chairs in a circle, join the group, let a student lead, and encourage classmates to converse with each another, not just with you.

Student presentations. Funny how we recommend that teachers lecture less, yet students' expressions of learning in projects are frequently one-way presentations-basically, lectures. Encourage your students to move out of the front of the classroom, too, and engage their audience in participatory activities like team challenges, game-style events, gallery walks, or hands-on engagement with materials.

Tinker station. Encourage hands-on, minds-on creative thinking by providing tools for tinkering. Stock a "maker" station with everything from Legos to kits with wires, switches, and batteries, to a sewing machine. Add a library of Make, Craft, and Popular Mechanics magazines to get creative juices flowing.

Skype on. Whenever his class works on a collaborative project with another school, a veteran PBL elementary teacher named Terry Smith keeps a Skype chat line open on a dedicated computer. Even when they are not conversing, students working at a distance stay tethered through the chat function and can hop on calls as needed with a "ping."

Video booth. Turn an empty refrigerator box into a three-sided video booth to capture student reflections. In one class, students created posters on the interior walls that evoke the themes of each project. You might set up lighting and a video camera on a tripod, or just arrange for video capture through a webcam.

Color. If you have the option of changing wall colors in your classroom and school, investigate the role of color on minds and bodies. Better yet, have students investigate and make color recommendations as part of a project.

Furniture. As with color, furniture affects body and mind. Kids have a natural inclination to move, and ergonomic furniture designs (round-bottom stools or shell-shaped chairs that rock) accommodate rather than suppress movement. Beanbag chairs invite students to settle in for reading or quiet work.

What's on Your Wish List?

Teachers model creative thinking when they find workarounds or inexpensive fixes to make their classrooms more conducive to project work. They also model collaboration if they enlist parent volunteers and other community members to help. Put your creativity to work by imagining how you might improve your classroom environment to invite good thinking. What belongs on your PBL wish list? How might you make it happen?

We look forward to hearing your ideas in the comments.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brittany Hoffman's picture

This is an incredible resource for rethinking the classroom space. I visited an unconventional school in Pittsburgh and heard the founder speak on why the space was organized and decorated as it was. The school is in the middle of the poorest part of the city, but it is beautifully clean, colorful, noisy, and full of engaged students. The founder shared that poverty is like a cancer, and it's cure is beauty. By creating a learning environment that was beautiful, the school could start to cure the underlying poverty. And it was working!

I loved this blog post because it gave some very practical ways to convert our classrooms from sterile, factory-like environments, to ones which encourage creativity, problem solving, and love of learning. Learning is an interactive process and creating a space that is naturally and organically interactive is a wonderful thing!

April Sanders's picture
April Sanders
Instructional Interventionist in Norfolk, Virginia

Creating thinking spaces creates a learning environment. Many times our students are so wrapped up in the instant gratification that our society has produced that they forget how to think and be creative. Forming a space that allows creativity to be fostered helps to expland the mind and explore different ways of thinking.

Looking at the classroom as more than a building/structure and using the space to promote thinking, creativity, and collaboration will help to support student learning. Creating thinking space as your classroom will also help students to understand more about themselves, others, and how ideas, dreams, and aspirations are fostered and florish.

We see many of these examples of thinking spaces in magnet and performing arts schools. Who's to say that these environments won't benefit the disadvantaged. It doesn't have take an entire school to make a difference, it can start with a single classroom.

Stephanie's picture

An environment such as the one discussed in this post is ideal for developing independent and innovative thinkers. Unfortunately, the reality of most classrooms in America is in direct contrast with this kind of environment. The first problem being the space available; since very few classrooms have the space necessary for fostering a creative environment in which the arrangement of the furniture and materials is conducive to creativity. Another problem is the pressure that school districts have to meeting benchmark on standardized testing. This perhaps has been the most influential factor in lack of creativity in the regular classroom. Many teachers feel stifled and fear there is no time during the day to present lessons in more creative ways; instead, ensuring that students learn or in some cases, memorize what they need to pass standardized testing is what's more important.
The reality however is that standardized tests are not going away any time soon. Therefore, teachers need to be able to plan around them, paying close attention to the desired outcomes for each unit and lesson, but applying more creative approaches to teaching the content and skills. Problem-Based Learning can take place regardless of what the subject matter, objectives, content, or skills being taught.
The post really appeals to me because I am strong supporter of student interaction and problem solving. I believe that by providing students with opportunities to tackle problems that require the application of critical thinking skills, will enable them not only to learn the desired content well enough to pass standardized tests, but will allow them to understand it to a degree in which they can delve deeply into it and apply it across subject matters. I highly value an environment in which students practice making choices, engaging in problem solving, and collaborating with others to meet desired objectives. An environment in which students can move freely and interact with each other as they engage in seeking new knowledge or finding new solutions.

Jennifer Handley's picture

This blog was inspiring. Nowadays with all the technology available to us, classrooms become perfect settings for project-based learning, where students can think and work independently and move from activity to activity. The problem I find with projects is the noise-level. Ah, the noise-level. It's something frowned upon where I work and have-worked in the past. Maybe a louder classroom isn't necessarily a bad thing. It seems like people in the building always judge if the classroom is "working" based on the noise coming out of it. No noise = good class. A lot of noise = bad class.

I have found that with the "rowdier" groups that I have had (seventh graders truley are something else), that PBL can be quite successful and can actually play into their strengths. "Conversational classrooms" may be the way to go with these groups, as the conversations are already going on. If they want to be heard, give them the platform on which to do it.

I also appreciated the comments about "checking-in" because it gives us, as the teachers, great one-on-ones that we can never get when we lecture, lecture, lecture. These one-on-one times I have found are the most valuable and can provide great brainstorming activities between the teacher and the student. Though it appears that PBL moves the students away from the teacher, I believe they actually bring them closer in a way of greater depth, rather than just "I talk, you listen" scenarios.

Erin Quinn's picture
Erin Quinn
Grade 8 Learning Leader and Humanities Teacher, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

If you're interested in the physical construction of space, I highly recommend the book Make Space, put out by the d school at Stanford University. It's a book designed to help people think deliberately about how we can organize our space to encourage creativity.

I also love the K-12 Lab put out by the d school as well: There's a crazy amount of fantastic exercises you can do to encourage design thinking in your students.

John Wick's picture
John Wick
Principal Christ Cathedral Academy

Hello Jennifer,
I'm actually glad you wrote about this. When I was a VP for a school we had a very creative teacher and her class was always quite vociferous. Many of the teachers that had been there for several years and even some of the staff would close her doors and complain to me that they were out of control. However, when I walked in the room I saw learning happening. Students were engaged, some were working on the floor, others were in small groups and I could tell the students were excited about their learning.

As I walked by other classrooms it was so quiet. Students sat at their desks facing the front of the room and were reading books or listening to the teacher. I finally got to the point where I said that the noise was the one thing that let me know the students WERE learning. I had more concerns for the quiet classrooms than the one in which noise was happening.

I'm sorry to hear that it is frowned upon where you work, I think that's the case for the majority of schools. We need brave teachers and thoughtful administrators to take a stand and put the students first. I hope you can get your administrator to come on board because the best learning I have witnessed took place in some of the loudest classrooms.


David Loertscher's picture
David Loertscher
Professor, San Jose State University

One solution to noisy classrooms is to convert the school library into a Learning Commons that combines books, information resources, the best technology, and space into this noisy creative space where classroom teachers, teacher librarians, teacher technologists, and other specialists from the school collaborate on the types of projects described here. this type of environment can not only be a physical space, but it can be a virtual online course space as well.

Kristen's picture

I really enjoyed this blog post because it gave simple ideas that will help foster collaborative learning and critical thinking. I thought the 'tinker station' was a great idea to incorporate STEM concepts throughout the curriculum. Regardless of the grade level, learning needs to be hands-on and interactive and allow for valuable discourse with peers.

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