Bridging the Gap

Supporting Active Learning Classrooms on College Campuses

Shortly after starting at SMMA, I was introduced to the concept of the active learning classroom (ALC) by Phil Poinelli, our resident Educational Facility Planner. These classrooms feature light, trapezoidal tables that allow for easy reconfiguration of the space, and white boards that offer multiple teaching surfaces. Simple and sensible enough, I thought. Contemporary corporate design has brought down the walls in recent years, to encourage employees to interact and work in teams. From huddle rooms to informal breakout spaces and video conferencing, "collaboration" is the buzz word in every corporate project. It seemed only logical to me teach our children, early and often, the power of teamwork and group thinking.

Two years later, in my efforts to introduce ALCs to the college campus, I’ve been surprised by the reluctance of Higher Education to abandon the stereotypical lecture hall.


I’d wrongly assumed that current corporate design thought had seeped into the educational system, informing the innovators of tomorrow. What I discovered was that many colleges and universities, although partly influenced by K-12 and corporate design, were behind the curve—playing catch-up and continually redefining pedagogy as a result.

I recently attended the National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota, and had the opportunity to speak with educators, curriculum planners, and facilities and technology groups from across the country.

One of the biggest questions I had for these people was: "Why have so many institutions been hesitant to incorporate ALCs?"

On the Forum’s second day, after many discussions and work sessions, I finally had my answer. College professors, viewed as experts in their fields, have primarily been trained to impart their knowledge to students by lecturing at them, with minimal interchange or dialogue.


This is embodied by the so-called "sage on the stage" style of teaching common on most campuses, as opposed to the more interactive style seen in K-12 environments. That disconnect has placed the K-12 sector at the forefront of active learning, while Higher Education has only gotten on board as of late.

As designers, what can we do to facilitate a higher ed client's interest in designing ALCs on their campus? Personally, I think the answer comprises two parts, both of equal importance. First and foremost, we need to educate. It’s our job to share what resources exist about the design and potential of these spaces. If the ultimate goal is faculty buy-in, we need to prove to these institutions the value in shifting the educational paradigm through knowledge-sharing and data-driven results. Second, we need to listen.

Every college and university has its own personality and values system, and it's our job to understand the school’s identity and learning objectives, so that we can support the design and implementation of the type of ALCs most conducive to their success.

ALCs are a microcosm of what's happening in our society, in general. Social media has made sharing thoughts and ideas, with friends and strangers alike, a comfortable part of our day-to-day routine. Incubators and think tanks celebrate cross-disciplinary collaboration for innovation. The school environment, from K-12 through college, needs to incorporate new ways of thinking, to mold the leaders of tomorrow. ALC design and strategy aims to provide a means to that end. I'm looking forward to Higher Education becoming more proactive than reactive in adopting ALCs in their campus design strategies—and also furthering my own education regarding this style of learning.