I recently taught a seminar on Learning Spaces at the University of Oregon’s Portland Program. One of the student assignments required teams to visit local colleges and universities to observe classrooms “in action,” in terms of both functional performance and teaching approach. A great stroke of luck led two teams of students to observe the same class delivered in two very different environments.
The class was a typical entry-level art history survey class. The instructor was highly experienced and deeply familiar with his material, and had a particular and engaging pedagogical style of roaming among his students as he talked, seeking commentary and insight from his class. And the material was presented in the conventional “comparative image” approach familiar to anyone who has taken a similar survey class, with pairs of images shown side by side.
The first classroom was a typical auditorium style space with decent tablet-arm seats and a reasonable AV system. The second classroom was a multi-purpose room, flat floored, with simple lightweight upholstered chairs, some of which had tablet arms and many of which didn’t. This room had a very large projection screen and good equipment to support the comparative imaging.
Which room do you think would be better to learn in?
According to my students, hands down the better space was the general purpose, flat-floored classroom. The observers noted that the students were more engaged, asked more questions, and very few – if any – of them appeared to be distracted. This goes against conventional wisdom, which tells us that when class sizes creep above 50 and certainly above 80, that a raked or stepped floor is the better solution. And each of these observed classes held over 100 students. My seminar group talked at length about why the flat floored room was better, and two simple theories rose to the top:
- The instructor could roam around the room more easily in the flat-floor scenario. He had better access to each individual student, and everyone was accountable to keep their attention within the room.
- The large screen in the flat-floor room enabled everyone a very clear view of the comparative images. No one’s sight lines seemed compromised despite the large class size.
If we add to this the intrinsic benefit of the flat-floored space being 100% ADA accessible and extremely adaptable to other uses, it seems clear to me that we should reconsider the “break point” for tiered classrooms. I wonder if we sometimes spend too much of our client’s budgets creating customized and inflexible spaces when perhaps we should be focusing more on innovative, yet simple, spaces that serve more than one purpose – perhaps a win-win for both budgets and learning outcomes.