The Rise of the Student Footprint in 21st Century Learning Environments

Tampa Preparatory’s middle school renovation makes a conscious decision about occupant footprint in the classroom—one I experienced first-hand as part of a design conference on 21st century learning environments.  We toured the school because of its purposeful renovation, innovative teachers, and thoughtful students it yields.  As architects of learning environments, we have the initial impact on the design of spaces for learning, but shaping the space doesn’t end with us.  Once classrooms are constructed, the footprints of teachers and students take the lead in defining the space.

Tampa Prep’s principal, in talking about teacher footprint, explained that it typically includes the physical layout of the space, arrangement and type of furnishings, decorations and display added after building construction, and the overall classroom character. However, within their classrooms each teacher’s footprint is consciously refocused to empower the student’s footprint.

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Photo courtesy of Tampa Preparatory’s Facebook profile.

Taking in the space around me while seated in a comfortable, mobile student desk, I noted that the teacher’s area consisted of an unassuming desk – also on wheels – and a small bookshelf, both located away from the teaching wall and out of the greater circulation space. Large digital screens and whiteboards placed on different walls replaced the single teaching wall. The principal commented, “A teacher’s desk placed at the front of the class, in front of the teaching wall, makes that space off-limits for students.” It was clear to me that removing the hierarchy of the teachers’ desk creates a greater degree of student flexibility, and the multiple teaching walls decentralizes the space, in effect, giving every student a front row seat.

Other educators speak of similar approaches (Center for Teaching Quality and Hunting English offer interesting readings on this). Eliminating the underlying meaning of the teacher’s desk location supports open classroom circulation, and moving beyond the “face the front” style of teaching promotes student-centered pedagogical innovation.

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Photo courtesy of Tampa Preparatory’s Facebook profile.

The principal also explained that student presence in the classroom is continually boosted to support their role as active participants in their learning. This includes capturing attention previously placed on the teacher and recirculating it back into the students, and elevating their sense of place within the classroom.  I didn’t see students using the space during my visit, but based on the principal’s description, collaboration, projects, and hands-on work occur much more frequently than lectures and notation.

Teacher-blogger Catlin Tucker fosters a similar approach to this teaching and learning culture where she is designing the lessons and lending support, while the students’ interactions drive the lesson. Her role is no less important, but she minimizes her overall footprint and lets the real work be accomplished by the students.

I also noted the lack of decoration and adornment in the space—no scalloped-edge, paper cutouts or cartoon alphabet. My critique about this approach? The thoughtful display of student work should be a key component of student-focused learning spaces. Both and Design Thinking for Educators describe examples of teachers encouraging students to take an active role in redesigning the classroom based on their own inquiry, process, and experience within the space. Although I was comfortable with the minimal layout (as most architects are), I also understand redefining the classroom décor is  a component critical to elevating the student footprint. I looked at the blank walls and wondered if they were missing something.

It comes as no surprise that the footprints of teachers and students continually shape and reshape classroom spaces during occupancy, however I am struck by the level of significance Tampa Preparatory places on an intentional approach to a minimized teacher footprint. By changing the perception of the educator, learning spaces can evolve to include a strong student footprint that will better equip their students to be at the center of a rapidly changing world.

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