January 13

Work Spaces, aka the classrooms we teach in, Part 1 of 2

A chapter of Tim Harford’s book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives that has stuck with me discusses work spaces. In a 2010 experiment, subjects were placed in one of four office spaces. The first was lean, in other words spartan. The second started as the lean space then was  enriched with some decorative elements. In the third case, the subjects had the same enriched space, but were invited to arrange the decorative elements to their liking, including having pieces removed if they wished.

In the final case, the subjects were again invited to place elements where they wanted, but then the experimenter went in and re-rearranged everything to the original enriched layout. The researchers labeled this fourth case as the disempowered office, as it was the space that engendered the lowest productivity and lowest morale.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the third case, where the occupant had control of the space’s arrangement, was the most productive, the empowered office. Subjects in the empowered space got 30% more done than in the lean office, and 15% more than in the enriched space.

Those in the disempowered office expressed many negative reactions, including boredom, physical discomfort, dislike of the work they were doing, and dislike of the company whose work they were doing.

The results of this experiment give me pause as I think of how we control the physical space our students work in. We often decide some pretty major things, such as what goes on the walls and the seating arrangements. We use our perfect penmanship to write directives on the whiteboard. The classroom is the students’ primary work space, yet they have no voice in deciding what it looks like.

In 12 Ways to Upgrade Your Classroom Design, Jennifer Gonzalez explores the question of classroom design, and offers specific ideas on how to improve the appeal and effectiveness of classrooms, all with little or no budget. The first of the twelve points? “Ask your students.”