The Crucial Element in Education: Physical Space

Even with masks, economic challenges, and hybrid models, one of the most important aspects of educating our children remains the way we organize and use the physical space of the classroom.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created incredible challenges for the education sector. School systems across the country have had to scramble to set up remote and hybrid programs, often resulting in chaos. And there are real costs to these disruptions: It’s estimated that some students have already lost a full academic year due to the pandemic, and the cost to claw back those losses is staggering.

In the midst of this bleak outlook, however, there is an opportunity. The need for physical distancing in classrooms offers a chance to rethink how we use that physical space.

“It's forcing us to say, this won’t work, we have to find other space—and that's a good idea,” says David A. Stubbs II of David Stubbs Design.

Internal maps

“COVID decluttered the space,” Stubbs says. “We were forced to reduce the density, reduce the capacity.”

That reduction of density can be striking—as can the unintended benefits. In classrooms where in the past teachers had to manage 30 or 40 students, they now have just 18 or 20. That’s an opportunity to rethink how the physical space is organized and move away from the traditional ‛face forward’ arrangement in rows.

Rows aren’t conducive to a learning environment in part due to the way people process information, especially at a young age. “All of the information that you gather from your sensory organs—from smell, taste, sight, hearing—goes to the subconscious part of the brain to build these little maps,” Stubbs explains. “I honestly believe that a teacher today that sets up a room in rows hasn't realized how detrimental that is to a percentage of their class.”

Getting away from front-facing rows can be a challenge with traditional classroom furniture, however. “Smart furniture like VS America’s products are an absolutely critical part of keeping the kids engaged,” Stubbs says. “If you can step back for five seconds and not say it’s a desk, and see it as a position, or a platform, or an opportunity, you shed that requirement of rows and front-of-room. It's just a tool to get to the next place.”

Students tend to fall into three general categories when it comes to learning: Multi-functional students  who take a leadership role asking and answering questions, students who take a wait-and-see approach to determine whether the content will be interesting to them, and students who hang back and need more space. The traditional arrangement of students in rows tends to serve the middle group best at the expense of the others. The reduction in classroom density means students can have a much richer sensory experience. “With furniture like VS America’s, you can avoid having kids facing the back of other kids’ heads,” Stubbs notes, which doesn’t give the brain much to work with. “If they're at a table together, they're learning from each other how they communicate, how they collaborate, how they teach, how they learn,” Stubbs notes. “The fact that they are across from each other, and they can see what each other is doing. They learn from each other that way. It doesn't always have to be language.”

That nonverbal communication is crucial—and requires physical presence. “We are humans,” Stubbs says. “We are living organisms. We need that human interaction. Over the phone and over video is okay. But there's something deep down, an intuitive, natural requirement that we need for healthy minds. Most kids will tell you: I want to be in school with my friends, I want to see my friends. I want to be with them.”

While masks can impact nonverbal communication cues, Stubbs is confident that students can adapt because there are dozens of nonverbal cues that contribute to learning and understanding. “Up until 11, 12, 13 years old they can just constantly rebuild these sensory maps,” he notes. “When you put a mask on, they're gathering, they're getting it. They're like, we got this. They're looking at all those different gestures—eyes become absolutely critical.”

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Better air

Another unintended benefit of the reduction in class size is an improvement in air quality. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that 41 percent of school districts in the country desperately need upgrades to their ventilation systems. “Based on our current understanding of indoor air quality, many outdated mechanical systems still in use today were designed without adequate air exchange. They were simply designed to modulate temperature,” Stubbs notes. “But whatever I exhaust has to get out of the room. Otherwise, it's just like breathing in a paper sack.”

Having fewer students in the physical space will ease the strain on those systems and improve the air quality, which can lead to a host of benefits. High levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by insufficient ventilation systems can cause nausea and headaches as well as a drop in mental acuity and the ability to concentrate. High CO2 levels lead to increased absenteeism and can exacerbate asthma symptoms as well.

Changing spaces

Above all, getting students back into a physical space in the first place is essential—because remote learning has huge costs. “Are all students learning as well as we could if we're actually in person? Absolutely not. Are we losing things? Yes,” says Stubbs. “Segments of this group are suffering immensely. Your special needs group is gone. English as a second language? For the most part, gone.”

These losses will have a real impact on something as fundamental as basic literacy, Stubbs warns. “The sensory components of learning are lost, and we're going to lose so much with our early learners in terms of language, the formulation of words—being able to sit across from a student one-on-one, touching their lips to form words, seeing a teacher’s mouth move and feel that vibration. The special needs group is going to suffer for years. Any person that needs that close interaction, physical touch, that's a huge problem.”

One solution to these sorts of losses in learning is smarter furniture like VS America’s Shift+ series, which was designed by David A. Stubbs II. “One of the successful aspects of the Shift+ furniture is the ability to configure the tables in such a way that not everybody's the same—because we're all different. So you get different types of learning styles, skill levels, and the gamut of learning, and there are all these different variables in play. Different students populate different zones, which is kind of fun. And when that happens, the more successful students are teaching the less successful.”

This innate flexibility is also a huge benefit to schools and teachers faced with coming up with creative solutions to using classroom spaces in a post-pandemic world.


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