Learner Think Tank

During the past few years, schools have reevaluated their learning environments and aggressively pushed for a new focus on college and career readiness. In doing so, they looked at the original inspiration for classroom design and organization. Rooted in the industrial model, it has not evolved. By comparison, manufacturing environments have undergone radical change. Modern workplaces too have moved toward flexible, collaborative spaces, transcending the notion of isolation and noninclusive work product.

Ironically, school workspaces have not changed much.

Educators, architects and educational facility planners are now embracing change and looking to the modern workspace for inspiration. Aligning the learning environment with the work environment helps create spaces where ingenuity and teamwork thrive. An added benefit of drawing from workplace experience is that there is abundant research and documentation on its design and role in engaging its occupants and supporting their success.

In 2010, the Institute for Workplace Innovation at the University of Kentucky developed the Innovative Workplace Model that identifies dimensions of dynamic work environments. Aimed at promoting communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation, these concepts can inform classroom design. We’ve incorporated some of these dimensions into the Learner Think Thank, a model that encourages higher student performance and closer connections between students with facilitators, fellow learners and the community.

Learning and advancement

In the Learner Think Thank, facilitators work with students’ individual learning styles to create the best learning environment for each. Activities are designed based on student’s strengths and interests, so they are engaged in their own learning. Learners are challenged, given opportunities for creativity and rewarded for their work. Facilitators allow learners to identify projects that they consider meaningful and assist in making real life connections based on the selected tasks. Accomplishments are rewarded and celebrated, empowering students to take on more challenges and become fully engaged.

Health and wellness

Studies show that poor IAQ detracts from a favorable learning environment, reduces productivity, is costly to resolve and causes adverse health conditions. The indoor air quality of learning environments can be positively or negatively affected by the selection of interiors products. Floorcoverings cover a large area of interior space, providing significant opportunity to impact IAQ. Some carpet manufacturers treat their products with antimicrobials, which are classified as pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency. Wet adhesives used to install flooring products also can be an issue, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) detrimental to indoor air quality.

Moisture intrusion from spills, condensation leaks, pipe bursts, roof leaks and maintenance practices occurs every day in school buildings. If moisture is allowed to pass through flooring, microbial growth can occur. Flooring seams should be molecularly bonded, not taped or glued. There should be no open seams associated with free laying modular carpet products or un-waxed VCT. Microbial growth will occur if moisture and food sources (such as dirt, skin cells and dust) are not managed. Hybrid resilient sheet flooring is impermeable with molecularly bonded seams that minimize microbial growth and allow complete removal of soil, food sources and moisture through normal maintenance. This helps protect the classroom from adverse health conditions. The leading cause of school absenteeism is chronic asthma, and many other health conditions associated with poor IAQ contribute to school absences.

Social and support teams

In a work environment, employees stay with the company longer if they develop meaningful relationships with their coworkers and bosses. In the Learner Think Thank, learners and facilitators have a connection that is based on trust, allowing them to work together collaboratively. Learners also have the same opportunity to develop connections with other learners and collaborate, creating an environment where creativity and innovation thrives. Trust from the facilitators motivates them to work more productively and creatively.

The learning environment supports social activities and teamwork with extra attention given to acoustics in the design process. Acoustics is an important consideration as studies show that students miss up to 33 percent of verbal communications in poorly designed classrooms.

Flexibility and inclusion

To support a learning environment that is inclusive and tailored to each student’s needs, the classroom is moving toward greater flexibility. The Learner Think Tank provides varied settings for tackling diverse activities and tasks, and learners are allowed to work on the schedule that best suits them. Learners are treated with respect and support, so they feel comfortable sharing their ideas, which may be based on their own cultural background. In this environment, students can commit fully to learning as they respect and are interested in everyone’s input and ideas.

Interiors products can facilitate a flexible learning environment. Furniture and finishes greatly impact the space. Floorcovering selection is especially important since the floor sets the stage for the tone and color palette.


A sustainable environment maximizes renewable energies and weaves them into the curriculum, stressing the importance of people, relationships and our place in the world. In the Learner Think Tank, we strive to include sustainable building materials, including those made from post-consumer recycled materials and those that are recyclable. Floorcovering can be an important contributor to a sustainable environment.

Creating the Learner Think Tank

At the CEFPI 2012 World Congress, we had the opportunity to showcase a vignette of the Learner Think Tank concept. This classroom design incorporates different organizational strategies that are similar to those found in the Innovative Workplace Model:

1) The Spill Over Area encourages informal conversation, where different teams can touch down and vet ideas with other classmates. The seating configuration and transparency to the room allow for observation to other the activities occurring in the classroom. Graphics also provide a bright focus for increased conversation and exploration. The transparency, seating configuration and floor plan delineated by the hybrid resilient flooring help tie this space to the Innovation Station and other functional areas.

2) Creation, collaboration and ideation is the main focus of the Innovation Station, where new ideas and concepts can be developed in a setting that allows for individual thinking or teamwork. The seating area allows spaces for students to work individually, but the transparency of the screens and the meeting capability of the furniture create excellent collaboration and conversation spots. Inspired by graphics on the wall and ceiling, the space is abuzz with energy, ideas and fun.

3) Adjacent to the Innovation Station is the Quiet Tank, where ideas are developed and concepts evaluated. The table provides for conversation, with walls that provide privacy and plenty of writing opportunities. The acoustics of the entire classroom are enhanced by the ceiling treatment and the floorcovering, allowing for the creation of a quiet space to deliberate and develop plans of action.

4) The Large Group Area provides flexibility for a variety of activities. From lectures to individual work, the flexibility of the tables and chairs allow for an agile work environment that can change as needed. Learners can reorganize the room and work in groups, depending on the task at hand. A technology rich wall allows for a variety of displays and for interactivity with the students’ own technology via docking stations for tablets and phones. The large group area is open to the outdoors, allowing the two to merge into one large learning environment.

5) Within the large group area is the Informal Breakout Space, with seating that is loose, relaxed and fun. The area allows for conversation and for a fun setting where ideas can be shared. The seating brings color and comfort to the room, and its light weight allows it to be relocated anywhere in the room, and even the outdoors.

6) The Sustainable Learning Environment brings nature into the space and utilizes materials that are environmentally friendly. Understanding that change is good; it allows for reconfiguration to occur as needed.

The world of learning is changing, and its relationship to the workplace is growing. The need for flexibility, agility, creativity and collaboration is growing as demanded by changes in technology, economics and globalization. The design of the Learner Think Tank, based on dimensions of the Innovative Workplace, allows change to occur naturally and positively. The opportunities for students to learn and perform at their full potential is maximized, while maintaining an environment centered on trust, respect and fun. 

Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, CEFPI, LEED-AP, BD&C, is national director of Educational Planning for PBK. John Sumlin is national sales vice president for Education for Tandus Flooring.