Education Design through the Lens of EQUITY

Creating socially & culturally responsive learning environments

By Lori Day, bKL Director of Education
Contributing authors: Linda Keane, Professor of Architecture and Environmental Design & Founder of Architecture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Tamara Smith, Executive Director at Teach for America- Delaware
Graphic Design by Celia Hao & John Leano

In Part 1 of our series on Education design through the lens of Equity, we focused on virtual learning environments. Part 2 examines how to achieve equity in physical learning environments.

“Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin”

The pandemic has forced us to examine how to foster community when we are apart. But as schools shift back to offering physical options for education, the need for increased connection and belonging couldn’t be more essential. Many educators are proposing simple yet ingenious ways to promote equity in physical classrooms. These methods introduce new seating arrangements, spaces for mindfulness, and an increased awareness of students’ involvement in their own education. Most of all, each tactic emphasizes the paramount importance of equity in educational spaces.

Trading Passive for Active Learning: Interaction, Independence & Choice 
The “traditional” or “lecture style” classroom, which is usually configured with rows of seating all facing a single teacher who delivers instruction, does not match what we know about how students learn and interact best. It’s considered a model for passive learning, because it does not facilitate interaction, independence, or choice. This layout implies disconnection and impedes collaborative behaviors. Instead, removing the dedicated instructor space at the front of the room encourages social interaction between teachers and students. The psychological separation between students and their instructors implies a “line;” physically removing this line results in an environment where students feel respected and valued. Additionally, encouraging active, participatory, experiential learning helps to increase the opportunity for instructor insight into how well the students are absorbing information. Non-traditional, flexible seating plans continue to grow in popularity as a simple and effective means for promoting social interactions within the classroom. Changes to the physical environment — creating regular space for collaboration among students and dialogue with teachers — is an open invitation for full participation in all aspects of the class.

The Cluster as Community Building
Tamara Smith, Executive Director at Teach for America in Delaware, advocates for the clustering of students into pods and groups, encouraging students to learn to work across lines of difference both cognitively and collaboratively. As an educator, she advises teachers to avoid straight rows altogether and use clusters. Even during standardized testing, these clusters can be adapted by using temporary visual barriers. Tamara posits that rows of students can increase feelings of isolation, whereas clusters encourage engaged behaviors.

Tamara is emphatic that community building is the key tenet of clustered furniture arrangements. Clusters mean that the teacher is more of a guide or facilitator, while the students drive their own learning. It’s important for students to learn from their peers and see each other, not just their teachers, as authorities. It’s a shift in power dynamics, removing the teacher from the center allows students to have agency in their own learning. 

Tamara shared this profound observation: “The most powerful gift we give to students is access and opportunity. Access to the resources they need to learn and thrive and the opportunity to create the future they want. With a strong educational foundation, students can choose the path they want to take in life, whatever that may be, but the key is that they have the choice to do so. When you do not equip a child with a high quality, culturally inclusive education, you do a disservice to that child.”

The Power of Arrangement
Environmental psychology studies have investigated the impact of seating arrangements on student behavior, interaction, and academic achievement. Being seated in rows makes interactions among peers inconvenient, which might seem like a worthwhile sacrifice for institutions trying to promote high educational standards. However, studies show that the quality of work actually improves when children are seated in clusters. 

Other studies looked at the effect of changing the seating arrangement (clusters vs. single desks) on logical reasoning and creativity in children attending primary school. Some individual characteristics (e.g., gender, loneliness, popularity) were analyzed as potential moderators. Results showed that, when children were seated in single desks facing forward, their score in logical reasoning was globally lower. When situated in a collaborative cluster, they performed better in theory of mind and creativity. This study suggests the importance of considering both the nature of the task and children’s individual personalities when deciding on seating configurations. Below is an example of flexible seating clusters that foster different behaviors and interactions based on groupings catered to different personalities.

Culturally responsive classroom 
A classroom for differentiated, culturally responsive learning might have a variety of seating options to encourage different learning modalities. Perhaps there is no front or back of the classroom, but a centralized focus on a shared and democratic classroom experience. This setup results in everyone being accounted for as a participant in a concentric community of learning. The children can now always see every single person in the room, and everything they do is presented to the group. This configuration means no one is at risk of disappearing or having their presence go unnoticed. 

In the diagrams shown below, there are multiple flexible zones that suit a wide range of activities, depending on what a student needs at the moment. Examples include spaces for Reflection (individual work pods for deep concentration), Inquiry (one-on-one meeting spaces, breakout areas for small groups), Gather/Socialization (café-style social spaces), and Ideation/Presentation (studio wall, large group collaboration). Innovation happens when unplanned interactions are sparked between the different groupings and disciplines. We want to have the astronomy major and the mathematics genius cross paths and create new business ideas.

Mindfulness Corner: Managing Emotions
One new spatial typology that is gaining popularity is called a “Mindfulness Corner,” where students and adults can process their feelings and manage emotions. Instead of constantly receiving disciplinary action from a teacher or administrator, the student owns their own processing. They make the decision to pause and recharge in the Mindfulness space. The area may have a curtain for privacy, as well as bean bags and/or yoga mats for stretching. The practice of mindfulness works wonders in both urban and rural schools where students have few resources to support them through trauma. According to Tamara, the Mindfulness Corner is a critical new space in her schools.

Supporting Diverse Learners 
If equity is achieved by creating a level playing field for all, then supporting diverse learners is imperative. Linda Keane, FAIA, NOMA is an artist, architect, and academic who is passionate about nurturing K12 creativity. She is a Professor of Architecture and Environmental Design, Founder of Architecture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the mother of an Autistic daughter. Linda described how the experience of raising her child helped shape her deep appreciation for supporting diverse learners in their educational journeys. To help her daughter and others, she founded the online program which supports ADHD learners through a strategy called “Frequency to Fluency.”

Linda created this workshop Learn x Design: Creativity in the Classroom, where students co-work side by side, 
individually learning from each other and then collaborating in self-selected teams.

In Linda’s personal experience, the key to supporting diverse learners is to encourage their curiosity through a process called “priming.” Priming involves having the teacher introduce tools, language, discoveries, and design opportunities for children in advance of them learning it in the classroom. That way children can explore and take ownership of their curiosity on their own time, prior to the teacher introducing the subject. She shares that the joy of learning is often flattened, but when students have that “Aha” moment on their own, their interest is forever sparked. It’s like opening a window to their imagination — and once it’s opened, it won’t shut again. 

Linda emphasized that it’s imperative to get students to connect with something in the real world for learning to take hold. Therefore, helps students explore links about topics and careers across the world, including art, science, design, engineering, technology, and the environment. Her platform is a rare STEAM by Design Standards free resource to assist teachers, schools, districts, and students to discover their interests and to empower their participation in creating a better, more equitable world. 

Creativity in the Classroom: Giving Students a Design Voice  
Beyond the arrangement of furniture on the floor plane, Linda shared that the one diagram missing is the “surround,” or three-dimensional enclosure of the classroom, which plays an equally critical role in the learning process. The surfaces of the surround include the floor, ceiling, and overhead elements, which can help provide cues and organize the flow of the classroom. To enhance equity, Linda works with her students to redesign their own environment so they have an equal voice. She thinks of herself as an instigator and encourages students to investigate and explore on their own, facilitating confidence in their own self-learning. Giving students the ability to choose how they want to learn is a huge leap from traditional educational models, where the teacher is an authority instead of a guide or facilitator. Linda emphasized that it’s important that students are critical of where they are learning, and that they are given the choice to decide what they want to explore each day. She has a group of 3rd graders organized into a “floor/ceiling/wall team,” and they work together as a collaborative group to design these interior elements purposefully. K12 environments often evolve into “flea markets,” or visually and acoustically cluttered spaces that inhibit children’s ability to focus. These chaotic classrooms can impede learning and don’t generate a calm atmosphere. By allowing the classroom to become a design studio led by the students’ voices, they become active participants in their own education and future. Linda shared that the whole point of education is not just to graduate from high school, but to discover how you can contribute to the world — and the purpose of education is to support every child’s potential equitably. 

3rd Grade Classroom “Floor Team” created musical entry mats, flexible lawn carpets, trees, & quiet cocoon corners

The Multi-Faceted Path Forward: Focus on equity while searching for Inclusion
Perhaps the greatest struggle with adapting our old system of education is that everything is so new and full of potential pitfalls. It feels difficult to select just one path forward. However, this may work in our favor. The pandemic taught us how quickly we could adapt, and now it’s time to innovatively apply both the old and new tools available to us. The diversity of students necessitates a diverse response, one that adapts, learns, and creates new ways of being, thinking, and teaching. Focused on equity and striving for inclusion, we can create an educational environment where all kids belong.