Back-to-school conjures images of desks in neat rows, and the smells of crayons and glue. Teachers work hard to make warm, inviting learning spaces for students, but let’s take a step back. What does a desk represent? Imagine a classroom that looked less like a traditional classroom and more like an artist’s studio. Our physical environment, as explored in The Third Teacher, tells us what is possible in that space. What if, instead of making our space for our students, we made it with our students? This is what design thinking allows us to do.
Last September, the day before students returned, I looked around my classroom and panicked. Bulletin boards were bare, and there was no furniture. I said to myself, “Parents are going to think I don’t care!” But the opposite was true after I took a risk: instead of me decorating a classroom for my students, we made a learning space together. After all, I work here, but so do they. Design thinking our way through making our own learning space was, hands down, the hardest and best change that I ever made as a classroom teacher.
Why Design Thinking?
Increasing student engagement by taking the leap into a deskless classroom required an introduction to design thinking and the support of my admin. Creating a learning space through design thinking is about fostering student agency from the outset. Students are more engaged in this space. More than an interior design project, rethinking a learning space is about remaking not only the space, but also the learning that happens there. Design thinking is about finding a real-world solution to a real-world problem.
How to Use Design Thinking for a Deskless Classroom
Step 1: Create empathy
Students explored where and how they work best and what might be done in this space if it could be remade in any way that they needed. At first, I had a hard time taking a hands-off approach and letting students own the space. I let go of my ownership by trusting them.
Step 2: Ideate
Brainstorm. To begin, every idea is a good idea. Students brainstormed and shook loose hundreds of ideas on sticky notes and chart paper. A silent gallery walk of all the ideas allowed us pick out the best ones.
Step 3: Prototype
After brainstorming, students sketched. Initial sketches led to the project-based learning where students measured the classroom and created a scale model. They discovered that the limited amount of space meant planning how to make it work best.
Step 4: Test, build, and tell the story
Volunteers helped construct and move furniture, but students were in charge of furniture placement, right down to arrangement of the bulletin boards. Rethinking our space on a limited budget meant that students had to get really creative. They looked around the school for unused furniture, asked for donations, and wrote letters to admin asking for funds. After the build, students reflected in their visual journals about how this space might work for them and what goals they would set for themselves.
Making It Work Day to Day
The deskless classroom looks like a space with no structure, but the opposite is true. In a space where more choice is available, students need to be held more accountable for their behavior and work outcome. This is still a fine balance for children in primary school. Self-regulation is difficult for some (let’s be honest — it’s hard for lots of adults, too). So there must be a balance of choice and self-regulation. Remaking the space means putting students at the center of their learning. Giving them the privilege of choosing where and how to work requires them to take responsibility. And they will.
Looking back at last September, I remember my feelings when the classroom was done! And then . . . it wasn’t done. Some elements worked, and others actually made me a little twitchy. In the end, every member of the classroom community needs to be comfortable with how it works. Some elements were taken out. Others were added. This space constantly flexes to meet the needs of students.
When is a good time to start creating a deskless classroom? Now! There will always be reasons not to take the risk in learning with students, and honestly, I expected a lot of pushback from parents and admin that just never happened. Students in my classroom don’t have an assigned space, but it’s never been a problem. I know that my room can be confusing for some people first walking in, like substitute teachers or other teachers’ students when we exchange classes. My solution has been careful routine building with students to help them take responsibility for the space.
Taking a leap into something new with students can be scary but also incredibly rewarding as they take ownership not only of the space, but also of the learning. Part of the reason for the space’s success is that it’s not mine. It’s ours. And now that I’ve ditched the desks, I’m sure I’ll never go back!
Whether you’ve visited a deskless classroom, taught in one, or have further questions, please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.