Creating an innovative college classroom learning space for preservice teachers
Original Article Published in Teacher Education Journal of South Carolina (TEJSC)
Abstract: Creating an innovative space for P-5 preservice teachers to learn the craft of teaching and solidify their calling should be a priority in teacher preparation. This conceptual paper highlighted research-to-practice ideas and processes in creating an innovative learning classroom. Upon examination of the literature, a clear gap emerged in reference to learning spaces designed specifically for preservice teachers that mirror elementary classrooms. Locating an appropriate space, considering stakeholders, prioritizing the budget, designing a layout including flexible furniture and seating, procuring resources and materials, and lessons learned are considered. The goal was to simulate real-world classrooms in order to advance educator preparation.
Creating an Innovative College Classroom Learning Space for Preservice Teachers
A traditional college classroom layout often lacks engagement for elementary and early childhood preservice teachers, because it does not reflect the physical environment of actual school spaces. Attai et al. (2021) show that many elementary school classrooms include flexible furniture and active learning areas in order to enhance learning outcomes. However, this is a mismatch with the learning spaces found in the traditional college classroom. Creating an innovative room for these future teachers to learn the craft and solidify their calling should be a priority and is well worth the effort. In doing so, the hope is to advance educator preparation for P-5 teacher education programs. According to Henshaw et al. (2011), the culture of higher education is slow to change and evolve in both teaching strategies and classroom setup. If the college classroom is to be seen as an environment that is relevant and challenging for our preservice teachers, then improvements to that basic setup must be a priority and results should simulate real-world P-5 educational settings.
Scott-Webber (2004) described the traditional college classroom as “remnants of the Agrarian and Industrial age models” (p. 26) that reflect a hierarchical concentration of knowledge at the top. Park and Choi (2014) go even further and suggest that current college classroom spaces are reminiscent of the first universities in medieval Europe. Most university classrooms are organized in just this way to promote the presentation of information from one professor to many students and poses limitations (Long & Holeton, 2009). This often presents as multiple rows of desks all facing the instructor. “Leaders must begin to establish a vision and strategic plan to create classrooms and buildings that are more reflective of the real world…” according to Sheninger (2019, p. xxi). Flexible learning environments that support multiple instructional techniques across college programs are key when considering classroom design (Boys, 2011). Unfortunately, many preservice teachers are destined to learn evolving teaching methods and technology in physical college classrooms that are simply antiquated.
Upon examination of the literature, a clear gap emerged in reference to learning spaces designed specifically for future teachers that mirror P-5 educational settings. Classroom layout, flexible seating, and the effective use of learning spaces is heavily researched for elementary classrooms. (Hartikainen et al., 2021; Kariippanon et al., 2018). Research on the transformation of college classrooms to encourage collaboration and diminish the focus on the transmission model where all desks face the content-provider professor is progressing (Park & Choi, 2014). However, there is little research connecting college and elementary classroom designs for the enhancement of preservice teacher learning. The purpose of this conceptual paper is to document the conversion process of a traditional college classroom to an innovative learning space for elementary and early childhood education preservice teachers while also sharing lessons learned. This article allows teacher preparation programs to consider enhancing practice for teacher preparation programs P-5 by creating or
redesigning a classroom that meets the needs of these future teachers. Watts (2011) suggests that conceptual articles address “innovative – new or adapted – procedures or techniques [or] current professional issues” (p. 311).
The process for creating the classroom called for a team approach and was multi-layered in scope. These multi-layered considerations included locating an appropriate space, consideration of stakeholders, prioritizing the budget, designing a layout including flexible furniture and seating, and procuring resources and materials.
Multi-layered Process and Considerations
At this university, there was an ongoing need for a dedicated space for elementary and early childhood preservice educators. With the arrival of a new dean, identifying a dedicated classroom became a priority. A small design team of elementary and early childhood professors were asked to oversee the project. The first team meeting involved choosing the room that would be the best fit for the project. After examining several classroom options and weighing the pros and cons, the team settled on the larger of the rooms available, because it had plenty of flexible space that would allow for student-centered learning.
Identifying stakeholders with a vested interest or a specific task in the dedicated learning space was essential to project completion. When multiple stakeholders are involved during a process of change on a college campus, sustainability of the project is more likely to succeed (Pedersen et al., 2017). In addition to university
administration, the team identified stakeholders to enhance the project by including the administrative assistant, student workers, maintenance staff, volunteers, and the college art department.
The university provided a budget amount of $6000 designated for this project. Initial discussions by the design team centered on fundraising options for obtaining materials and resources through sponsorships and grants. Ultimately, outside funding sources were not needed as all materials and resources were procured through donations, repurposing existing equipment, and use of the designated budget. The team organized the budget by determining priorities for the use of the space. The priority items were transferred to a spreadsheet for accurate recordkeeping as procurement flowed through the design team to the administrative assistant.
Next, the team worked on a classroom layout using a vision board with the 21st century learner in mind. According to Araujo and Araujo (2021), “A 21st century learner is focused on authenticity in the learning environment and is adept at incorporating a variety of skills including critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative work” (p. 177). After consulting several published sources on classroom design such as Nair’s (2014) Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning for Student-Centered Learning and Hare and Dillon’s (2016) The Space: A Guide for Educators, priority principles were targeted. These targeted principles included the modification of existing spaces, a narrowed the color pallet, and flexible work and seating options. One approach suggested by Nair (2014) was to modify existing spaces. Based on this, the team emptied the room and claimed unused equipment from other places, such as an interactive whiteboard, whiteboards, and cabinets.
Paint color often plays an important role in the classroom in respect to student learning and behavior (Gaines & Curry, 2011). Hare and Dillon (2016) recommended narrowing the color palette of a classroom to three main colors, so the team chose sage green, cream, and black. Research indicates green is matched with positive moods, such as joy and relaxation, rather than negative moods, such as sadness or fear (Jonauskaite et al., 2019). Cream and black were chosen for their neutrality. Using these selected colors, the maintenance staff painted the room. The learning space also featured a 20-foot by 10-foot signature wall. The design team decided a child-friendly mural would be appropriate to visually depict the values of the university. Upon collaboration with the university’s art department, a full-length mural was approved and completed over the course of six months.
In addition, Hare and Dillon (2016) suggested having flexible workspace and flexible seating options to signify a student-centered learning environment. The design team created flexible workspaces by providing a variety of chair groupings, tables instead of desks, and a rug for whole group classroom gatherings. Flexible seating options the team chose were high-top and low-top tables, wiggle seats, bean bag chairs, and scoop chairs. The choices for flexible seating were based on current research that indicated muscle fatigue is increased when sitting straight in hard chairs; thus, options that provide opportunities for student wiggling, fidgeting and changing positions were suggested (Anderson & Hartley, 2019).
With the intentional removal of a teacher desk in the learning space, Hare and Dillon’s (2016) advice to reduce the teacher footprint was also followed. A kidney-shaped table was purchased and used for a variety of purposes including small group instruction and as a teacher designated area. The team, student workers, and volunteers assembled and arranged the furniture.
Procuring Resources and Materials
Procuring additional resources and instructional materials beyond furniture, fixtures, and equipment was the next priority for the design team. Using knowledge of instructional best practices, the team made lists of items needed for P-5 content areas such as globes and maps, anchor charts, science lab materials, math and reading manipulatives, leveled readers, and interactive bulletin boards. Items that were not purchased with the designated budget were donated by the community or the college. The College of Education had a large amount of science, math, and arts and crafts materials stored in various locations. These items were gathered, organized, and centralized in the newly designed classroom. The campus library donated materials that were highly circulated and would be better served in this elementary and early childhood learning space. Discarded books and curriculum guides, school supplies, posters, and bulletin board decorations were donated by a local school district and a teacher supply store. Additional items were donated by retired teachers, professors, and university students.
When considering lessons learned it became evident that it was worth the effort to create a unique space for P-5 future teachers. Preservice teachers, professors, and even university staff have commented on their love and admiration for the dedicated learning classroom. When the college semester began it was immediately evident that the future teachers loved doing their college classes in the new room. One student commented, “This looks just like the elementary classrooms we have had in our past practicums” (G. Nolan, personal communication, January 11, 2022). A professor who taught two sections of the same class was struck by the difference in her teaching effectiveness when teaching in the innovative space. “It allowed me to recall things I would have done in my public-school classroom that I would not have done in a traditional college classroom” (J. Zakrzewski, personal communication, August 23, 2021). She mentioned students rarely sat in a traditional seat but chose a flexible seating option on a regular basis.
Others in the college of education embraced the new classroom by planning department meetings and hosting teacher training sessions. The admissions and public relations departments showcased it to prospective students and families with positive results. Visiting alums have been impressed with the room and recognized it as a sign of the program’s expansion. One alumna commented, “The students are so lucky to have this! I wish I had been able to use this room. It really shows the College of Education is moving in a forward direction” (T. Clements, personal communication, July 24, 2021). Several preservice teachers have been spotted sitting in the classroom when class is not even in session. They are so enamored with the room that it has become a space for collaboration outside of class. Most lessons learned were simply things to consider rather than difficult challenges to overcome. Being patient during the process was key. The room needed to be readied by maintenance staff. The work orders were plentiful and required multiple visits as the room was emptied of furniture, walls painted, carpet cleaned, technology installed, and chalkboards removed. Additional patience was needed as the design team, student workers, and volunteers worked to assemble
furniture, organize materials and resources, and inventory new items. This process required hours of manual labor over the course of a summer. When the semester began, the design team felt validated when future teachers responded positively to the kid-friendly space.
The classroom generated so much positive feedback, professors wanted to teach all their courses in the room. Additional thought about scheduling the room for classes and prioritizing which classes would use the space should be a priority. This was an unintended consequence that needed forethought and was not on the radar of the design team. Spreading courses across days and times would help make the most use of the room.
This conceptual paper highlighted research-to-practice ideas and processes in creating an innovative learning space for preservice teachers. The goal was to advance educator preparation. The literature showed a gap in reference to learning areas designed specifically for preservice teachers mirroring elementary classrooms. College learning spaces are typically not considered when future elementary and early childhood teachers are trained. Creating a learning space that mirrors an actual P-5 classroom is an important element in teacher preparation programs and should be considered. This university made it a priority so preservice teachers could learn the craft of teaching in a real-world environment. The planning and implementation process for creating such a space were shared.
Now that the classroom has been created, research needs to be done considering the impact of flexible workspace and flexible seating options. In addition, research should focus on professor effectiveness, preservice teacher engagement, preservice teachers’ implementation of skills and strategies, and the transfer of those skills into their future classroom within this community learning space. Without a physical room in existence, this research cannot be completed. The first step was to create the space.
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