The Architecture of Student Learning Really Matters

Recently, two Middle School teachers at my school ditched their rows of individual desks with attached chairs for large, wooden tables that can be arranged in a variety of configurations. In addition to the much improved aesthetics, this change provides teachers and students with more options for both individual and group work to help achieve the particular learning goals of each lesson. For seminar discussions, instruction is closely aligned with Harkness Table pedagogy, instructional techniques that were first developed at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1930s and quickly spread to many other independent schools in New England. The pedagogy implemented around these tables proves to be particularly effective when teaching in a Socratic method. It encourages debate between students on topics that are open-ended and fruitful to explore through dialogue and collaborative processes.  

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As teachers and administrators think about various spaces for learning and the range of possible furniture configurations to support learning outcomes, it is helpful to consider that our first classrooms may have been around a campfire, sitting under the shade of a tree, or perhaps huddled together in the shelter of a cave. These places were perfect for conveying stories that contained essential lessons from past events or expounding upon theories used to explain the world. And as such, the manner people arranged themselves around a fire or in a shared space impacted the flow of information from one person to the next. Some places, such as a common shelter or a watering hole, are inherently social places, ideal for allowing peers to learn from each other. Given our collective histories, it’s no surprise that students still respond well in such environments today. Educators who have successfully transitioned to more flexible architecture in their learning environments don’t simply abandon individual desks. They provide powerful alternatives for conveying information as students connect to deeply ingrained and uniquely human ways of learning. 

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