How Great Teachers Give Students the Freedom to Learn

Lead Features May / May / Top Features / Top Features May / May 15, 2018


– by Thomas Mennella –

In late April of 2018, I had the distinct pleasure of sharing a conversation with Dr. Robert Talbert, a mathematics professor at Grand Valley State University. Dr. Talbert is the author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty, considered by many to be the instruction manual for flipping college courses. More recently, however, Dr. Talbert has been on sabbatical and spending time away from Grand Valley with Steelcase, an office and education furniture company that has fully embraced the philosophy of utilizing classroom space to leverage active learning. With Steelcase, Dr. Talbert is consulting with engineers and designers on research and development of products for educational learning spaces and conducting research on active learning and active learning spaces. And this is why I grabbed some of his time in April — to discuss the impact that physical classroom space has on college-level learning.

I first asked Dr. Talbert about the significance of the impact space has on learning in higher education. His answer was emphatic: “It is incredibly important!” He went on to share that “physical space constrains the technology and pedagogy that is possible.” In other words, a poorly designed or set up classroom gets in the way of learning. Dr. Talbert discussed the Holistic Framework philosophy, where significant learning lies at the overlap and exchange between pedagogy, technology, and space. I took from this idea that significant learning is not possible unless the classroom space is optimized.

Dr. Talbert then took the conversation to a uniquely interesting place — to social justice. He asked me to consider the traditional classroom: student chairs and desks squeezed into half of the space and the other half reserved for the instructor (desk, chair, and board). Dr. Talbert then asked me, based on this room design, who is important here? The answer was obvious; it was the teacher. Dr. Kirsten Schliephake is a senior educational designer in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University where she works as a change agent to influence educational strategies to include active learning transformation.  Dr. Schliephake takes Talbert’s idea one step further when she notes that little has changed regarding classroom design in nearly a century. “The configuration of a horseshoe was seen as innovative in the ‘80s and ‘90s and viewed as contributing to an inclusive classroom that could facilitate discussion. However, today we are looking at 21st-century skills and developing teamwork skills is facilitated better by small group configurations,” she says.


This is not unique to higher education. Terra Graves and Dan Jones make the same point in their K-12 companion piece in this issue. And, if students want to participate in such a room, they must raise their hand, calling attention to themselves, exposing vulnerability and often times admitting confusion. Dr. Talbert explained that he views this classroom design as “trampling one’s rights.”  The message being implicitly sent to the student by this design is that “you are there to sit still and pay attention.” It’s the person at the front of the room who matters. Talbert described such a room as “undemocratic.” So, what can be done to fix this problem?

The Ideal Space

Surprisingly, Dr. Talbert offered a few low or no-cost changes that can make a huge difference to classroom space design, usage, and effectiveness. First, try to reserve approximately 20 square feet of space for each student (instead of the 10 square feet typically recommended). Active learning classrooms require students to move around and collaborate; they are dynamic. Give students the space they need to behave in these ways. Make sure there is ready access to electricity for all students. Looking at the Venn diagram above, technology is another essential piece of significant learning, and technology requires power. Make sure students can plug in. Keep the floor clear by having a place for students to stow their gear. Make the room welcoming for foot traffic so students implicitly see that they should be getting up and walking around. And, make furniture moveable. Talbert referred to casters multiple times in our conversation; put tables and chairs on wheels. But, in a pinch, he even recommended the “tennis ball trick”: slicing some tennis balls partly open and placing one on each leg of a table. This makes it much easier to slide tables around. Talbert says, “there are tables and then there are tables.” Heavy tables, even if they are technically moveable, lock a room in a single configuration, and the real necessity for a good active learning classroom is flexibility.  Moveable furniture is the key ingredient for flexible space and so, one way or another, you should get that furniture moving.

Another important ingredient for optimized learning spaces is an abundance of writing surfaces, both digital and analog. Talbert claims that in the best classrooms “the digital and the analog must exist side by side.” There should be paper, pencils, pens, Post-it notes, whiteboards, and easily accessed digital displays throughout the classroom. Talbert dramatically states that learning in the active learning classroom relies upon “capturing information,” and it will be the writing surfaces that allow that information to be captured. Finally, returning to the social justice idea, in the active learning classroom there should be no front of the room. Implicitly show your students that this room is for them, and about them, by having the room reflect a democratic philosophy. And, while it’s true that this might not be the typical higher education experience, the best way to do this is to have no recognizable default front of the room.

I then asked Dr. Talbert what instructors should do if they want to embrace these philosophies and change a room to leverage effective active learning. He said that one must start by making the room flexible and “start with the students and design around them.” Then, size up what you are trying to accomplish with that room. What problem(s) are you trying to solve? Envision for yourself what teaching and learning will look like in that room and design toward that end goal. Then, ask yourself what incremental (low- or no-cost) steps can you take to move this room closer to the ideal on your own. Implement those steps as a sort of beta test. Do they improve learning? Are you on the right track? Finally, consult with your students and other teachers. Use their insights to be sure that your design is not missing anything. Talbert states that students are the best consultants in this scenario; they are the experts on learning. Once the room is redesigned, professional development for how to use the room is a must. Talbert claims that the largest impacts of new active learning spaces consistently correlate with the best PD and training on how to use them. Teachers must be trained on best practices for rooms such as these.

Good Teaching in Bad Spaces

For those instructors who do not, or cannot, control the design of their teaching and learning space, small steps can have major impacts. As the instructor, don’t stand at the “front” of the room. Circulate among your students to show, by your actions, that you and they are more collaborators than authority figure/subordinates. Design activities with physical movement in mind so that students are required to get up, move around, and interact with one another. And, make your own unique writing surfaces. A large, two foot by three-foot post-it notepad typically costs around $30 and can be temporarily fixed onto a tabletop, creating a collaborative space around which students can huddle and brainstorm. There is much that you can do in a static classroom environment that still promotes active learning, equality, and social justice.  

Sadly, my time with Dr. Talbert was already drawing to a close, but we explored one more topic: the interplay between Flipped Learning and classroom space. Talbert shared with me his vision for a classroom that was specifically designed for the flipped classroom and it sounded amazing. One must remember, he reminded me, that in a flipped course students arrive to class at many different levels of preparedness. Some understood everything in the individual space exercise/video, while others didn’t even watch the video at all. The FL classroom should have “launching points” for all students at all levels. These stations or zones would have advanced, challenging activities for the accelerated students, refortifying activities for the middling students, and in-class flip video watching stations for the students who need to catch up. There could even be a station for students who did everything that was expected of them in the individual space but are still struggling mightily with the material. In this way, students can self-select their level of comprehension by where in the room they go when they arrive to class. This is the epitome of the democratic classroom space, and it allows the instructor to quickly gauge where each student is in his/her learning simply by looking at where in the classroom they are sitting.  Talbert believes that a classroom of this type would have a huge effect on student learning in a flipped environment and that it is a classroom that would be welcoming to all students at all levels of academic success.

Giving Students the Freedom to Learn

In the grand view, changing a classroom is not a major undertaking. Small and inexpensive changes can go a long way toward improving student learning, but even radical redesigns are single-time capital expenditures. In other words, for the instructor and institution, these changes are small affordances. But Talbert leaves us with this powerful thought: Rethinking our classroom space and usage, and making changes such as those described above, are the “little affordances that give students permission to exercise their right to be learners in the classroom.” Indeed. 


Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on May 23, 2018

Awesome article Thomas! The classroom design is often overlooked as an integral part of the learning process. Thanks for sharing these ideas.

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