Challenging the classroom layout

A smart classroom is a learning space designed to offer endless possibilities for individual learning needs, taking into consideration pedagogical, environmental and digital factors

The image of rows of chairs and desks facing a teacher at a blackboard has been a reality for decades. However, research reveals that this way of organising the classroom furniture in schools is not optimal for the learning process.     
This is especially the case if the needs of 21st-century students are taken into account, who, according to the OECD, require a social environment that fosters autonomy, flexibility, decision-making capacity and the connection of knowledge by individual students or through teamwork.
What’s more, six out of every 10 teachers believe that changing the design of the classroom is key to improving learning. This was the result of a recent study conducted by researchers of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Universitat de Barcelona (UB), Universitat de Vic (UVic) and Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), in which 847 preschool, primary and secondary school teachers from 40 schools participated.
“We assume that’s what the spaces should be like without giving it much thought or without connecting what we’re innovating in terms of methodology with the place in which we’re going to put that into practice,” said Guillermo Bautista, member of the Smart Classroom Project research group of the UOC and principal investigator in the study. That’s why we need to make the Smart Learning Space a reality: “A space that meets any learning need or proposal, that is flexible and not zoned, in which physical and psychological well-being are prioritised as the foundations upon which the learning activity can take place, in which the pupils play a proactive and autonomous role,” said Bautista.

Changing the learning space

Several studies have already acknowledged the benefits of a suitably-designed classroom. This was one of the reasons why the Consorci d’Educació de Barcelona started replacing the furniture in 487 classrooms a few weeks ago, whilst also reorganising the spaces to obtain motivating environments that encourage discovery. As the authors of the UOC-led study point out, it’s the skills and learning needs of today’s pupils that not only oblige us to rethink our teaching practices or the inclusion of digital resources, they also require changes in the learning spaces in general.
Guillermo Bautista demonstrates this with an example: science tells us that we learn better by collaborating, and therefore the space must favour this collaboration and interaction, also taking into account what research tells us about collaborative learning. If we organise the activity with groups of four students based on a challenge or a project, it would be logical that the space should be suitable to enable the group to collaborate and also enable a certain amount of autonomy for using the resources it needs, for moving, looking around, experimenting, and self-organising, and so on.
“This means that not all of the groups will be doing the same thing at the same time, and the same resources will not be necessary for everyone. The activity in the classroom is diverse and the space must constantly respond to this organisational diversity of use, resources, movements,” he explained.
However, the strong assumption upheld for decades that the classroom is as it is, has resulted in us proposing few changes. And when these are finally being proposed, the direction of these changes is not easy to decide upon, “and that is why our research is necessary, to help establish criteria so that the space is changed with guarantees,” he said.

Secondary school classrooms

Currently, most teachers negatively rate the organisation of the environment in their classroom. This is one of the findings of the study, whereby low or moderate scores were obtained regarding the suitability of current classrooms to serve as comprehensive learning spaces. But differences exist between year groups, as the design of preschool and primary education learning spaces is generally more flexible, collaborative and personal.

“It is precisely in the infant and primary stages where teaching trends such as those applied since the early 20th century (in which the spaces, their layout, furniture, etc. were already linked to clear educational meanings) have been most present and usually more visible,” said Angelina Sánchez-Martí, researcher of the Smart Classroom Project and Serra Húnter professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
On the other hand, the traditional layout of the spaces is much more established among secondary school centres and teachers. That’s why the authors of the study positively value the fact that during the study it was confirmed that there are teachers and centres from this stage of education who are aware that their spaces do not correspond with the methodologies that they want to implement. “The Smart Spaces that we have implemented as part of the research are co-designed, applying a thoroughness, rigorousness, and seeking to meet the highest objectives and results for learning proposed by each centre. And these spaces are needed in all of the stages,” said Bautista.
The study also showed that teachers are especially critical when it comes to the integration of technology in the classrooms But in the opinion of the authors of the study, this data is not surprising as “it is precisely the new technologies that are threatening the traditional times and spaces, and therefore demand great flexibility and a constant adaptation to change, as well as a reformulation of the learning spaces,” said Sánchez-Martí. She added that the possibilities that technology offers in terms of creating new ways to learn “completely clashes with the very standardised design derived from the idea that schools must be based on classrooms per se, when this does not necessarily have to be the case.”

What is a smart classroom?

A smart classroom is a learning space designed through a co-design process articulating three dimensions: pedagogical, environmental and digital. These dimensions are based on scientific evidence obtained from research. Smart Classrooms enable learning in an environment that cares for everyone’s wellbeing which responds to any pedagogical need. This ensures a rewarding learning experience and student’s all round development.
A smart classroom does not set aside specific areas for different activities. Instead it offers endless possibilities in the same space adapting to the learning needs.
A smart classroom enhances the learning experience by creating an environment that cares for people and their physical and psychological wellbeing.
A smart classroom also allows for a personalised and autonomous learning process and for different dynamics to develop at the same time. Learning is developed through movement, proactivity and collaboration between teachers and students.

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