Bob Dillon

Jan 17, 2021

3 min read

Please don’t begin classroom design by picking out and buying furniture.

Designing learning spaces is a learning-centric endeavor not a furniture-centered enterprise. There will be a time for finding the right furniture to complement, supplant and replace the current items in your school, but it doesn’t start there. Over the past four years of design work with schools and districts surrounding the concepts in The Space: A Guide for Educators, we have found the greatest success when we have worked with students, teachers, leaders, and families prior to any purchases being made. In our latest book, The Space: A Guide for Leaders, we dig into this process and unpack for design teams and leadership groups how they can design a successful journey to full school optimization. We begin with three big ideas.

This is not a solo mission.

School leaders that begin rearranging things, buying things, and asking people to remove items from their spaces can get a few wins, but the systemic wins come from having a design team that includes teachers, staff, parents, and potentially others from the community. This doesn’t mean a team of fifty, but a representative team of 8–12 people where each individual has a specific role that supports the overall team. This group has the mission to examine the current reality, sync the future of space and learning, and begin to design solutions that will support teaching and learning. Avoiding the solo mission allows for the design work to enter deeper into the culture in a more efficient way. For more about how culture needs to be an essential driver of space design, see part one of this series HERE.

Seeing everything new again.

It is most human for the things that surround us on a daily basis to fade into the background with the details lost to our daily review. The start of the space design process with your design team requires a new noticing of all of the spaces in the building. It is about building awareness, and it requires that we slow down, notice, discuss and evaluate with fresh eyes and decide whether each space: rises to a level of excellence, speaks clearly about the mission of the school and supports the teaching and learning happening throughout the campus. This cataloging of spaces allows the design team to see the totality of the needs, celebrate current wins, and begin to prioritize what actions can happen now and which need funding to occur. This also creates a habit of noticing throughout the building that will continue to unearth new opportunities for making all spaces even better.

Have a bias towards action.

This allows you to start the momentum and deliver some easy, quick, cheap wins. These actions move the intentional design of spaces up the priority list as well as provide a visual reminder to everyone in the school that small changes can have a big impact. Consider looking for light bulbs that are out, bulletin boards that have aged or ceiling tiles that need to be replaced. Find a corner that is dirty, a bathroom that needs a deep cleaning, or the space under the stairs that needs an update. Begin there. Some design teams will rank the 5–10 spaces in the building that are known for being the scary places that people avoid. What is something quick and inexpensive that can happen there? Look for a closet or storage space that is in need of having some things moved to the trash. Easy wins can be additions by subtraction.

The Space: A Guide for Leaders provides much more on all three of these areas as well as provides many other tips and ideas on where to begin. Certainly not all of your space design needs will be accomplished without funding and purchases. Those are definitely a part of the overall design process, but it is essential to start now with building awareness, the right mindsets, and a team that can work on solutions together.