By Margery Weinstein
Maybe my learners just need more natural lighting, or maybe the spider plant sprawling across the windowsill frightens them, the earnest trainer thinks to herself, attempting to discover why her employees seem so uncomfortable during the classes she facilitates. Perhaps they would enjoy more of a collaborative environment, seated at round tables rather than sitting in rows. Then again, maybe they’ll become self-conscious. After all, who wants to have others looking at you, and attempting to chat with you, while you’re busy learning? Myriad questions come to mind on the topic of physical space in the classroom. The possible solutions are as diverse as your learners. The good part is there’s a lot to try. Training spoke to a few companies about creating classrooms conducive to learning.
No Tables, No Chairs
For Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan, classroom environments have undergone an evolution over the last two years, says Senior Director, Human Performance Janice Simmons. “Over the last couple of years we’ve worked with facilities to look at classroom usage. As we do more Web-based training, and use more accelerated learning approaches, we need non-traditional space,” says Simmons. That means classrooms with spaces that can be configured as needed. “We want our spaces to be as flexible as possible, including flexible furniture and equipment. We’re just beginning the journey to transform our spaces, but we’re definitely on the path to optimizing the real estate we have,” she says.
That flexibility sometimes means doing away altogether with what most people think of when they hear the word, “classroom.” “It stretches people’s thinking,” says Simmons. “A classroom isn’t just chairs and tables or chairs and desks. As we do things with more movement, with people more active during class, we sometimes take the tables and chairs out.”
In implementing the accelerated learning approach, the company offers some classes in which participants mostly are moving around for the expanse of an afternoon. Or they could go through 45 minutes to an hour of movement-oriented coursework before moving into another environment more suited for contemplation. The key is creating an environment that allows for an array of activities. “I don’t think there’s any class or event we do where people are sitting or standing the whole time. It’s usually some down-time, some up-time.”
To offer a holistic learning experience, you have to consider the physical space, says Simmons. “For people to engage their whole body, and their whole mind, you have to have a physical space that supports and encourages that,” she emphasizes. “That whole person learning requires movement, and your space has to accommodate that.”
Simmons’ ideas about physical space were put to the test when the company redesigned its consultative selling skills class. A pilot of the redesigned course was launched in a traditional classroom environment. The problem was something was still missing in the response from learners, despite the updated curriculum. “While people liked it, they weren’t as engaged as I wanted them to be,” says Simmons. “They seemed to be lethargic by the late morning/early afternoon.”
To address the lack of engagement, Simmons and her team added accelerated learning techniques to the delivery of the coursework. Learners now are asked to work with a map on the floor outlining the steps of the consultative sales process, and with a partner, they (literally) walk through it on the map, practicing the steps as they go. When the pilot of the accelerated learning version of the course launched, trainers brought in the employees who had experienced the first version of the updated class, the one that left many of them disengaged. “We brought them into a room with no tables or chairs, and these maps were on the floor. They had to go through the exercise, and I will tell you we couldn’t get people to leave the training,” says Simmons. “We planned for a couple of hours, and we couldn’t get people to go home.”
Simmons says the results of the course taught in a more physically dynamic environment indicate a success. “The engagement has gone up,” she says. “The comments we get back from participants are: ‘We get it now. When we go to remember the [consultative selling] steps, we remember physically walking through the process.’ They report they remember it better because they were physically active and moving.”
Configured for Collaboration
At Century 21 Real Estate LLC, trainers have learned to make the most of learning environments, especially when off-site in a location that may not be ideal. “Many times we are using hotel breakout rooms or corporate conference spaces that can be less than ideal ergonomically,” says Director, Staff Development Christina A. Murphy. “We will look at a space and determine the best ways to maximize our objectives. We will use many different forms of media and exercises to keep the learners engaged as much as possible. We also make sure we move through the entire space so as not to make those in the back feel left out.”
Murphy says the company knows from experience the way employees are situated in a classroom affects how well they learn. Arrange them the wrong way, she notes, and you’ll end up with less collaboration and interaction with the facilitator. “We either divide the learners into areas that are conducive for discussing topics or have designated areas on the perimeter for small groups to gather and work together,” Murphy explains. “These arrangements foster better teamwork and collaboration as the learners feel comfortable participating within their group.” The company has used the addition of computers into the classroom as a way to make the learning experience more sensory-oriented. “A benefit of having computers in the classroom has been to give the learner a kinesthetic learning experience. For example, instructing on social networking is only impactful when the learners actually can do it,” says Murphy. “Watching a PowerPoint presentation will only bring them so far. Once they are able to perform the tasks themselves, they take off from there and exceed the imparted knowledge by applying it.”
Sometimes a space that initially seems daunting turns into just what learners need, Murphy says, recalling a recent company-wide meeting at a local hotel. Trainers found themselves having to work around banquet tables. “We decided the best way to use the space was to have a team exercise everyone at the table could work on,” says Murphy. “We had them design and present posters on what the essence of the Century 21 Real Estate brand meant to them. Between the supplies being strewn around, and tools being shared across tables, it became a community-building event. A lot of energy, passion, and great ideas were created that day.”
Diverse Learners, Multidimensional Spaces
The Economical Insurance Group (TEIG) knows its multigenerational employees need to learn in different ways, so classroom spaces are designed to accommodate a wide range of learning styles, says Manager, Learning and Development Mary Beth Alexander. “Our approach to the use of space for live, in-person learning events ensures our venues are physically accessible to accommodate all learners, and respects the differences of all learners,” says Alexander. “We embrace an inclusive environment that supports multiple modes of instruction, taking into account the set-up of the training room.”
When choosing learning spaces, the training team ensures it suits all its learners’ needs, regardless of whether it’s in-house or off-site. “In determining the location, whether on-site in one of our training rooms or off-site at a hotel, we consider the options based on the number of participants in attendance,” Alexander explains. “First and foremost, the physical space must be engaging to the learner and promote collaboration and a sense of community among participants and the facilitator.”
Alexander says the company considers whether the learning space is adequate for those used to high-tech environments, as well as those more comfortable in traditional learning settings. “Today, we have four generational cohorts in the classroom, and each generation is motivated differently,” she points out. For example, Alexander notes, the company’s Generation Y workers “are tech-savvy and need a blend of learning activities to keep them engaged. They respond to graphics, multimedia, Flash technology, and the like, so classroom learning modules need to incorporate these tools to foster collaboration,” she says. At the same time, non-techie, traditional elements also are thought about. “We often use roundtables for a maximum of four to five participants to encourage dialog and discussions.”
Indeed, TEIG has found technology and traditional class space are not anathema to one another. The company always looks for ways to intertwine the two in its classrooms. “New and emerging technologies have impacted physical space dynamics greatly in the classroom. As learning leaders, we need to ensure we make room for collaboration to enhance the overall learning experience,” says Alexander. “The dynamics of workforce learning and development have shifted from a passive to active experience in today’s knowledge economy. We need to be more agile than ever and open to explore innovative technologies.”
Alexander says the company recently partnered with a vendor, Data on the Spot, which it uses as an immediate feedback tool for evaluation and testing purposes, to update the classroom experience. The technology requires nothing more than a laptop for the facilitator and handheld devices for each participant to enter his or her feedback on the spot. The addition of this technology has created a more streamlined classroom. “From a physical space perspective,” says Alexander, “supportive learning technologies are becoming increasingly more compact, which creates ease for the end-user.”
TEIG currently is in the early stages of a redesign of its training spaces to ensure they meet today’s learning needs. That means taking informal learning into consideration. It is estimated that informal learning now comprises approximately 70 percent of organizational learning, Alexander says.
For its week-long leadership training, which takes place in hotel breakout rooms, she says learners are encouraged to leave the classroom setting and go to areas in the hotel with lounge chairs overlooking gardens to stimulate creativity and innovation. “At the end of each day of the program,” says Alexander, “participants are encouraged to network together over coffee in the hotel to continue to foster interaction between participants and facilitators alike.”
As for TEIG’s on-site informal learning innovations, planned changes to physical learning spaces include the addition of large plasma screen televisions, leather couches, an Internet cafe station, and large coffee tables in the same training space as its roundtable instruction area. “Our end goal,” says Alexander, “is to create a learning space that supports a collaborative and community experience.”