Ask anyone stuck in a beige classroom with nothing but a presenter in front of them, and they’ll tell you that environment plays a role in how they learn. Even the most engaging teachers or riveting content can be dulled by drab surroundings.
But human-centered design thinking helps to create spaces for more effective learning by promoting cooperation and collaboration between employees.
Environments can be as unique as the companies they serve, but they should all contribute to the learning process’ key components, such as group problem solving. “The more the learning environment supports those kinds of behaviors and activities, the more they’re going to be aligned with the goals of the company,” said Sean Corcorran, general manager of education for Steelcase Inc., an office furniture manufacturer and design firm.
Peter Lippman, associate director for EIW Architects, has designed classroom environments using a human-centered approach. He said cooperation and collaboration are tough to promote in workplace environments because work is done more independently than in a traditional school setting.
It’s not just the workplace mentality that makes learning difficult, however. It can be the actual environment, too. Lippman said although open spaces are popular with companies looking to create a communal watering hole, they can create a territorial attitude because employees have to claim their own space rather than take a cubical that’s been assigned to them.
The same goes for classrooms. “When you have professional development in the corporate world, you need that meeting space, but overall you don’t need to have that big classroom,” he said. “You need to have those areas where you can meet in smaller groups and have the resources and tools available that really support it.”
Lippman’s ideal classroom environment for employees and students alike includes breakout nooks where they can meet in small groups before and after a class or meeting. Doing so allows employees to take ownership of their learning and return to the class or to their desks with a better idea of how the people around them work.
Having non-classroom environments designated for continued development is important because so much learning happens outside of class. Jeff Ziebarth, global practice leader for architecture firm Perkins and Will’s higher education practice, said learning leaders should recognize that the student only spends an hour or two in the physical classroom but has the best chance for collaboration outside of the room.
That doesn’t mean hanging a neon sign above a lounge area that says “serendipitous meeting space” is a good idea. Ziebarth said the best environments for learning are adaptable and unspecific, while those structured for only one kind of use become obsolete in the long run.
Lippman said he makes sure his designs are based on how the client plans to use the environment 80 percent of the time — the other 20 percent people will figure out a way to adapt. “We have to bring that kind of (flexible) thinking to the corporate world,” he said. “The building itself is a vehicle, and that vehicle reinforces the ideas of a place.”
This article is the sidebar to Chief Learning Officer's October feature, "Learning by Design."