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Rethinking Learning Spaces

 -  6/14/12

Corporate trainers and college faculty share a goal to spark enthusiasm, prepare students for success and foster a positive learning experience that will boost engagement, promote collaboration and yield content mastery.

Guided by a vision that 21st century learning space design can push traditional boundaries and inspire learning, the Herman Miller Education team examined these building blocks for positive learning experiences as part of its Learning Spaces Research Program (LSRP).

Since 2007, Herman Miller has partnered with more than 25 colleges and universities to design pilot spaces for 21st century learners. Called learning studios, these experimental spaces include flexible furniture that is easily rearranged, allowing educators to manipulate physical spaces to support different learning objectives. Students and instructors were surveyed three times — before, during and after their learning studio semesters — to gather feedback. When LSRP data from 2007 through 2011 were analyzed, students and instructors reported an 18 percent increase in engagement in the learning studio versus a classroom, and said increased collaboration was a highlight of the learning experience.

Susan Whitmer, a Herman Miller strategic education consultant, said one of the intentions for the learning studio was to get instructors out from behind a podium and connected with the class, which ultimately resulted in a better experience for everyone. Benefits translate to the corporate world in two ways. In learning studios, students learn to master skills in more collaborative ways, making them more effective. Second, learning studio design elements can be implemented in corporate training environments and meeting spaces.

Learning studios help to break down barriers that can impede workplace success, such as fear of public speaking or discomfort with collaboration. By design, the furnishings — maneuverable chairs and tables with casters, which accommodate roundtable conversations and group discussions — encourage engagement by removing traditional boundaries. Participants are more likely to ask questions and discuss and even defend their position with instructors in these environments, which they likely will do in an office. According to survey responses from participants, those in LSRP learning studios felt relaxed and comfortable learning in these spaces. They also reported feeling more confident when delivering presentations in front of a group.

The LSRP findings also emphasized the importance of collaboration. Educators have long understood that social, collaborative spaces keep minds, voices and projects moving, while stimulating, engaging spaces draw people in and spark creative thinking. According to the research, 86 percent of participants felt that learning studios supported this collaborative spirit and were conducive to group work, up from 48 percent of participants who enjoyed group work in traditional spaces.

Corporate learning environments can leverage this model with space designs that promote possibilities rather than restrictions, and flexible furnishings, technology and instructional design play a big role. For example, as needed, trainers can “strike the set” when a different learning space is desired to support new objectives.

Jeff Vredevoogd is director of Herman Miller Education, a furniture manufacturer. He can be reached at


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