Rethinking Teaching Spaces

Zachary RobertsDear Gateway families,

A classroom’s physical environment greatly influences what and how teachers teach, and what and how students learn. This is why the classroom has been been identified as The Third Teacher by educational thinkers, designers and architects, and why some educational traditions such as Montessori and Waldorf have very specific and detailed concepts about the design of classrooms in those schools (matching the unique specificity of those pedagogies).

When children are seated at separate individual desks in rows facing in one direction, the physical space supports teacher-centered instruction and individual tests. By contrast, when desks are arranged in a horseshoe, they support whole-class discussions and student presentations; and when desks are in small pods of three or four, they are well-suited to student-driven inquiry and collaborative learning.

Gateway faculty fluidly use these and many other instructional strategies, which is why classrooms often change shape. In the coming years we will also be increasingly emphasizing student-centered practices that more deeply reflect our programmatic vision of “a dynamic and intellectually challenging educational environment rooted in Progressive education and reflective of evolving research.” We recognize that to do this well, the physical furniture of the room must support this sophisticated pedagogy, as well as be functional and sturdy, and also provide a comfortable and pleasing experience for students.

Back in April, the generous support of the Gateway family community raised over $30,000 for the annual Fund-A-Need program, which we announced would be directed towards classroom furniture replacement. We have identified six important elements in the design of classrooms that will drive our choices in the years to come as we replace the existing resources:

Flexible: Can be easily reset in many different configurations to support different types of teaching and learning.

Mobile: Easy for students to move and configure themselves, to support students taking an active role in creating their learning space for the task at hand.

Choice: Allow for students to have freedom of choice (when appropriate) in where and how they work, from individual to partner to small group to large group.

Health: Allow for movement and seating options that support movement and a variety of ergonomically correct options.

Movement: Incorporate natural body fidgeting and movement to allow students’ bodies to function in a natural way and thus better focus on tasks at hand.

Aesthetics: Looks modern and attractive, in a pleasing color palette that emphasizes natural colors and textures.

The functional and sensorial experience of a space goes far beyond the furniture present in the room. In addition to desks, tables, and seating, the shapes and designs of storage provided in a room impacts how students use the space for their active learning. The ways in which student’s prior work, anchor charts and other displays are presented has an impact on the visual field and sensory experience of students. So to does the choice of flooring materials, wall colors, and lighting.

This summer we will be investing the resources from the Fund-A-Need in a pilot program to reset three classrooms; the Middle School Spanish classroom, and both Second Grade classes. We’ll keep you up to date throughout the summer as we empty and repair those rooms, and purchase and then install new tables, desks, chairs and storage. We’re thrilled to begin this process and expect that the full roll-out and replacement in all classrooms will unfold steadily over the next several years.

Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School