Building Excellent Learning Spaces

Posted by Dr. Robert DillonO

August 17, 2017

Settling, for some time now, has been the achilles heel of many in education when it comes to learning spaces. With only a bookcase, a whiteboard, and some desks, many educators provide a solid learning experience for kids because they are resourceful, dedicated, and driven. They make do with the situations that they have, and they tell the stories of scarcity as a badge of honor.


Many of these situations are actually bleak, and many classrooms do suck the life out of kids. Too often, classrooms today mirror the classrooms of fifty years ago. This doesn’t have to be the reality though. With a shift in the ways that we think about the contents of the classrooms, we can make some significant changes that help students and build brain friendly classrooms that support collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.


Learning space design is changing the way that conversations are happening. Imagine talking to the back of someone’s head in a row of desks all day and imagine, as a teacher,  trying to get everyone’s voice in the room when groups of students are stranded on an island with no way to contact other students’ ideas. Modern learning spaces are healing these past wounds by bringing story to the center of the learning, allowing students to guide the learning, and having meaningful conversation flood the classroom. This is happening in rooms with comfortable seating, space to move around, and learning spaces with lighting and color that support discussion.


Learning spaces design is changing the way that students thinking and feel about learning. In a time when we are seeing the light about the essential nature of social emotional learning, quality learning spaces can be the habitat kids need to build critical skills like empathy, listening, and balance. Learning spaces bring calm to the noisy storms that fill many of our students’ lives. Educators that find places for quiet in their classrooms are supporting students’ mental health and reducing trauma and stress. Learning spaces also can validate hard work and build a sense of accomplishment. As classroom walls are full of the learning process, student see that mistakes and failure are learning, and that success can always be an opportunity to iterate again.




Learning spaces shape what and how we measure learning. When we think about the box that we call a classroom, it lends itself to taking the tests that come with bubbling in the box. When we begin to expand our vision of the modern learning space, it quickly becomes unfair to think about legacy practices like master scheduling, bells, and grading. All of these systems feed the old classroom pipeline, and they are exposed in their current form by the classrooms that promote creativity, choice, and voice. Learning spaces also ask whether learning can be measured in more authentic ways. It supports ideas like competency based learning, digital portfolios, and larger, multi-year project based learning for kids.


Learning spaces rejuvenate our learning pulse. In many places, the energy in the system is on life support. Instead of kids, teachers, parents, and leaders feeding a beautiful learning fire, they are putting positive energy into the work in small, intermittent spurts because of the firehose of compliance, policies, and rules that can plague a system. The classic classroom isn’t the place that launches the next scientist, inventor, or entrepreneur, but instead, it will come from a modern learning space that sees beauty in different learners and can provide a unique paths for their ideas. Modern learning spaces have a surprising effect on everyone, and that energy  multiples as many individuals comes together to create, make and design.


We are now in a place of not having to settle for the classroom that we were assigned. There are many ways to make small changes that have a big purpose. There are many ways of addition by subtraction. There are many of being intentional in our work by thinking like a designer, having empathy for our students’ needs, and allowing our classrooms to be the healthy place with great sound, light, and color that all kids need to fulfill their dreams.


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Dr. Robert Dillon  has served as an educational leader in a number of public schools throughout the Saint Louis area over the last twenty years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. Dr. Dillon serves on the Leadership Team for Connected Learning, a Saint Louis based organization designed to reshape professional development to meet today’s needs. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak throughout the country at local, state, and national conferences as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is the author of four books on best practices in learning, Leading Connected Classrooms Engage, Empower, Energize: Leading Tomorrow’s Schools Today, Redesigning Learning Space, and his most recent book on learning space design called The Space: A Guide for Educators.

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