sustainable learning spaces

Instructor Perceptions of a Flexible Writing Classroom

Dana Gierdowski, Elon University



The data from this portion of the study suggests that, while certain aspects of the classroom could at times be obstacles of varying extents to teaching, the flexible classroom presented the instructor and TA various opportunities to actively engage composition students in the learning process. The instructor and TA noted that the benefits of the room, such as its mobility and multiple resources, outweighed any perceived shortcomings; as a result, the flexible environment can be considered an enabling pedagogical instrument. This space gave the instructor greater freedom to utilize collaborative learning activities that encouraged contribution in a class that could be hesitant to participate as a whole group. In addition, the obstacles that the instructor perceived in the flexible classroom could also inspire reflective teaching practices.

As evidenced by the data from the instructor portion of this study, the flexible space can be used as a pedagogical tool to actively engage composition students in the classroom. The furnishings, whiteboards, and LCD screens were all perceived as resources that the instructor could use to connect students with the course content, as well as with their peers in class. In addition, the mobility of the space allowed the instructor to change course in the middle of a class in order to better meet the needs of students and increase engagement. Although the instructor perceived that there were times when the furniture allowed students to position themselves into areas of the room that were not as accessible to him, he believed that the mobile furniture produced more effective small group work because students could make eye contact and face each other for dialogue and discussion. The mobile whiteboards were especially appreciated by the instructor, who perceived them as versatile and valuable instruments for encouraging students to be more cognitively and physically active in class. The use of the whiteboards offered students opportunity to move away from their usual seats and outside their comfort zones, to interact more with their group members in what the instructor considered to be meaningful ways. As with any tool, the instructor and TA grew more comfortable with using the whiteboards in the class, demonstrated in the confidence both had for moving the boards around the space to accommodate the best sightlines for themselves and students. While this obstacle might only be logistical for some instructors, for others it can be an indicator of a growing level of comfort with a more de-centered classroom space, more student-centered practices, and varying social dynamicsfactors that have the potential to challenge established pedagogical philosophies and inspire reflection.

However, it is important to note that flexible classroom space alone cannot be attributed to a lesson’s success or failure. The instructor’s pedagogy, as well as the social dynamics of the class, must be considered with the flexible classroom when examining perceptions of the space; these factors inform each other, and they should not be treated as mutually exclusive. In other words, the space did not entirely prevent certain pedagogical approaches, as the instructor noted above; however, it did make certain active and collaborative learning activities easier to implement. While the instructor perceived that aspects of the flexible classroom could sometimes be an obstacle to his teaching, he demonstrated an awareness that multiple factors could be attributed to his teaching successes. In his introductory interview, he described his pedagogical style as being centered on classroom discussion and dialogue. However, when the class was reluctant to participate as a whole group, the instructor modified, frequently spontaneously, his approach in order to encourage students to be more involved. Despite his (and the TA’s) attempts to facilitate whole-class discussions, there were times when he noted that the social dynamic in the class was difficult to overcome.

It is important to recognize that the instructor discussed that he did not have the same challenges in the two other first-year writing classes that also met in this space. That is, the social dynamics were different in his other classes, and as a result, he stated he could engage them in whole class discussions and activities with greater success. Even though he was covering the same course content and assigning the same projects, he modified his pedagogical approach based on the personality of each of his classes more than he did based on the resources in the space. The instructor also noted that his later classes seemed more comfortable in the space, as they moved the furniture into different configurations frequently and without a direct invitation or encouragement. These results suggest that the social dynamics of the class can influence one’s teaching practices and must be factored into the examination of the role of the learning space itself. Recent research comparing an active learning classroom to a traditional classroom reveals that “different learning environments affect teaching-learning activities even when the instructor attempts to hold these activities constant” (Whiteside, Brooks, & Walker, 2010, p. 6). However, the results from this study add a new dimension to the research on learning spaces, as it suggests that teaching-learning activities can also vary when the instructor teaches in the same space due to the collective personality of the group and students’ comfort levels with class participation. Several active learning classroom studies have included control groups in their samples, with students who had class in more traditional spaces and the same instructor (Beichner et al., 1999; Brooks, 2011; Dori & Belcher, 2005; Hunley & Schaller, 2009; Whiteside et al., 2010). This study, however, focused solely on one instructor and one particular class. However, the instructor’s comments suggest that even though the space remained constant, one’s experience in it can vary based on the individuals who populate the space at different times.

The study also suggests that the space could offer instructors the opportunity for reflection based on what could be perceived as unsettling experiences in the classroom. For example, the instructor’s uncertainty about where to position himself in the space when the furniture was arranged in a different way resulted in his rearranging the layout in later classes to better support the interaction he sought with students. This reflective practice demonstrates that instructors can benefit from the productive unsettling that they might experience in a flexible classroom. The implications for this unsettling can result in more reflection, more effective teaching practices, and increased interaction with students during class time. For example, the instructor noted during several interviews that teaching in the space made him think more critically about his pedagogical decisions when planning lessons and activities for his students. As the semester progressed, his reflexive practice became more focused, and he discussed how he might use the resources in the space (particularly LCD screens) more inventively for peer review and composing in class, as well as how he might arrange the furniture to better support his teaching methods. In one of the final interviews, he shared that his favorite part about teaching in the room “was being able to think about ways to improve my class, improve my lessons, [and] change things up a bit.” He was careful to make the point that a significant factor to remember is that while the flexible classroom can support student engagement and cooperative teaching strategies, it is the pedagogical choices he made in the space that could make a difference in teaching and learning: “It’s not that we really do things for the most part in this classroom that you can’t [do] in other rooms,” he admitted. However, he added, “You can just do it more—do it better in this room … at least for my teaching style—sort of being able to adjust things while they’re happening—that’s where this room really kind of works.”

The instructor’s reflective practice demonstrates his awareness that the space alone cannot be the sole determinant of a lesson’s success; that is, the pedagogical choices instructors make can help them leverage the tools they have access to in a learning space, which could potentially increase student engagement and participation.

It stands to reason that if instructors have more experience in a flexible room (or rooms of non-traditional design), then more knowledge can be gained regarding the pedagogical choices that are being made and the factors that are influencing those choices. The instructor noted that he considered time a significant factor in how well he utilized the flexible classroom space; in other words, thinking critically and planning lessons that capitalized on the resources in the space took time and attention. His thoughts raise an important point about planning active learning lessons that engage students in the writing process, which can be a challenge given the limited time and resources of many writing instructors. However, Boys (2011) argued:

if our aim is to help students to learn how to learn in this way (that learning is about being collaborative, creative, interactive and lateral) then we may in fact need to develop a highly structured series of developmental activities. Whether these are considered formal or informal is actually of little consequence. What matters is whether the teaching and learning is of value, and has an effective impact. (p. 27)

With this in mind, the development of orientation and professional training programs for those teaching in spaces like the flexible classroom is a worthwhile pursuit. Additionally, assessing the effectiveness and impact of those professional development programs could inform how we prepare teachers for working in these innovative spaces. As Hunley and Schaller (2009) noted, “institutions that assess the use of learning spaces on their campuses must also ascertain pedagogical practices that yield optimal learning” (p. 34). Orienting and preparing instructors to teach in flexible learning spaces (or other spaces that depart from sage-on-the-stage designs) is important when considering the classroom as a sustainable teaching tool that can be adapted to best meet the needs of learners.

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