The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 91 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

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A couple of years ago, I saw a picture of a classroom on Facebook that stopped me in my tracks. It was the room of Michigan high school English teacher Rebecca Malmquist. The room was filled with light coming through the curtained windows. In the foreground, a worn sofa and a collection of other low seats surrounded a coffee table, and all of them were anchored in place on a persian-style rug. In the photo’s background were a few long tables with an assortment of chairs: some upholstered in vinyl, others covered in cloth seat covers, some a vintage metal. The teacher’s old wooden desk stood off to one side, with a wall of books behind it. Every corner was illuminated softly by lamp light. It looked like a living room. Like a place you’d go to curl up and read a book, take a nap, or have a really good conversation. And yet it was a classroom.

When I shared it on my website, the Internet went nuts. Nearly everyone went nuts in a good way, commenting on how beautiful and soothing the room was, asking questions about how Malmquist found all the pieces for the room, how she got permission to do certain things, how she structures seating choices to keep students from fighting over where they sit, or to keep the class from getting chaotic.

A few people saw the photo and were instantly discouraged: They loved the room, but there was no way they’d ever be able to recreate it in their school, with small spaces, big class sizes, limited budgets, and strict fire codes.

Now this classroom–the one in the picture–was just one particular type, a kind of shabby chic, funky,  yard-sale mix, but it represented something bigger, a tear in the fabric of the way we’ve always done things. It was just one example of the way flexible seating and more student-centered classroom design have taken off everywhere, with more teachers breaking away from traditional classroom layouts and finding new ways to make their rooms more conducive to 21st-century learning, where collaboration, personalization, and project-based instruction are becoming the norm.

Unfortunately, many teachers feel like their hands are tied. They’re under the impression that to create these incredible learning environments, they need tons of money and big, modern spaces to work with. Although these things are obviously great to have, they’re not within reach for most teachers. The good news is that the principles of learning-friendly design can still be applied without them. There are lots of things you can do to your classroom–without a lot of money or space–to make it a much better place for students to learn.

To get some expert help on this topic, I invited Bob Dillon to be my guest on this episode. (No, not the musician Bob Dylan–this is Bob D-I-L-L-O-N.) He’s a former middle school principal who now works as a director of innovation for a St. Louis-area school district. He’s done a lot of work on transforming learning spaces, and most recently he co-authored a book on this topic with designer and educator Rebecca Hare. The book is called The Space: A Guide for Educators.

In our interview, Bob and I talk about some of the design problems he sees most often in classrooms today, the things teachers can do to their rooms to make them more learner-friendly, and how to overcome some common hurdles teachers often experience when redesigning classrooms. After listening back to our interview, I decided that the best way to turn our conversation into something you could act on right away was to condense it into 12 specific things you could do. Our actual conversation is not organized that way — it’s all in there, but we don’t actually name and number them this way. So I’ll list them off real quick here, and then if you come over to Cult of Pedagogy, click Podcast, and choose episode 91, you’ll find a list of all 12 there. But here’s a quick preview just to whet your appetite:

  1. Ask your students.
  2. Subtract.
  3. Mix up your seating options.
  4. Consider the perimeter.
  5. Reduce your teacher footprint.
  6. Create spaces for collaboration.
  7. Create spaces for creation.
  8. Create writable spaces.
  9. Create spaces for quiet.
  10. Create spaces to showcase learning.
  11. Narrow your color palette.
  12. Utilize the hallway.

Before we get started, I’d like to thank our sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. To learn more visit

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Now here’s my interview with Bob Dillon.

GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Bob Dillon to the podcast. Welcome Bob.

DILLON: Hey, it’s great to be here and thanks for having me on.

GONZALEZ: Sure. We are going to talk about classroom design. Even though you do a lot of other stuff, we’re going to just focus today on the work that you’ve done around classroom design. So just give my audience a little bit of background about sort of who you are in education and where you are when it comes to classroom design.

DILLON: Yeah. I was a middle school principal — I usually just start there — I was a middle school principal for like 15 years, and so that’s some good work right there. I really enjoyed that piece, and then since then, I’ve been asked by a couple of districts to kind of transform not only their technology services but just how they do the work they do. I now have the title of director of innovation. So I’m not really sure exactly what that means yet. I’m learning as I go. Ultimately, there are a lot of little things that are broken in school districts that need to be fixed, one of those being how we design the environment for kids to learn in. They had a lot of focus, both here locally in St. Louis and around the country working with teachers and schools and districts on design, and it’s been a lot of fun.

GONZALEZ: So you partnered with Rebecca Hare on a book called “The Space.” Can you tell us a bit about that?

DILLON: Yeah, no. Amazing story, amazing educator, and she actually comes to education from a design background. She was an industrial designer for a decade, and has done some just amazing work. Her and I came together to say, how can we do something that allows teachers on a Friday to pick up our book, “The Space: A Guide for Educators,” go through the book, learn some things, take some really practical tips, and then really do something with it on Monday morning? And so we produced a book that’s text light and design heavy, and it really is an accessible book for folks to kind of build a designer’s mindset.

GONZALEZ: Excellent, excellent. So we don’t have Rebecca here, so I’m just going to trust that you’ll sort of fill in some of those gaps here that may be some things that she would have contributed.

DILLON: Yeah. We were actually together yesterday, so we’re never too far away from each other. We’re actually, real quick, we heard for the last two years in our work with teachers around the country, “Hey, we can do this work in our classrooms, but this needs to be a whole building philosophy. You need to write a book for leaders.” So now Rebecca and I are on that journey as well. We anticipate a second book. Who knows what it will be called, but for now it’s just “The Space: A Guide for Leaders,” and hoping to kind of churn learning environment conversations into whole building conversations.

GONZALEZ: Oh, that’s fantastic. Oh, I’m really looking forward to that, because you’re right. If you do it piece by piece, that’s one thing, but some of the problems I think that teachers run into when they want to transform their spaces is what’s already going on in the rest of the building. It can rub up against a lot of friction and money issues, and so if everybody in the building’s on the same page, that’s fantastic.

DILLON: Yeah, we’re thinking about things like, what does the outside of the school building say to the community? What are the first things that people see and feel when they walk in your school building? A third of all the square feet in schools is hallway, and we don’t use that for learning like we could. So all of those questions will be kind of deeply baked into that, and so we’ll see, but we really do feel like there’s a lot of momentum around this work, around school design happening all over the country.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I think so. I’ve seen it, definitely, from my own site, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to have you on. I saw you present at the Learning in the Brain conference in Boston last fall, and some of the stuff that you presented on really resonated with me. One of the things that you were talking about was how teachers have this impression that they have to buy a room full of Steelcase furniture or they have to do a lot of crazy things to improve their classroom environment. Some of the stuff that you presented on, you were sort of showing how you take a basic classroom and made just a few small changes and just that alone made such a big difference. So I really wanted people in my audience to see how easy it can be to make even small changes that would make a big difference.

DILLON: Yeah, thanks. You know, Rebecca and I knew that 85 percent, 90 percent of classrooms in America aren’t going to have a full remodel or they’re not going to tear down the school and rebuild it, and we didn’t want this to be an equity issue, right?


DILLON: We’ve created enough gaps in education that we don’t need another gap around learning space design, and so we’ve been able to kind of think really deeply about no budget, low budget change, which is probably going to impact more classrooms than an architecture firm or a design firm or a brand new school when we really get down to it.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, definitely.

Design Problems in Typical Classrooms

GONZALEZ: OK. So let’s start by looking at sort of the current state of affairs. What would you say are some of the biggest problems that you see walking into a typical classroom?

DILLON: First and foremost I think that teachers, rightfully so, oftentimes have a scarcity mindset, like “I’m going to have to hold onto this, because I don’t know if the budget, I don’t know if my principal will ever give me that again.” So we end up seeing thousands of paperclips and 10,000 markers and a collection of things over time that really has happened by inertia and momentum as opposed to by design. So we’re hoping that some of our work breaks that mindset a little bit. That’s been really important to us. The other trend, and I think we see this in elementary classrooms more than secondary classrooms, is this idea of decorating the classroom —


DILLON: — with no thoughts about brain science, with no thoughts about what’s really good for kids, but really kind of that idea of, “I jumped on Pinterest. I saw these cute ideas, and I put them in my classroom.” And then often you have classrooms that look like a bag of Skittles.

GONZALEZ: Yes they do. Yep, they do.

DILLON: Yeah. And so I think that those pieces are legitimate, and then I think that as we try to ask kids to be collaborative, and that’s an important skill that we’re developing […] for a lot of reasons. If the environment doesn’t do that, it’s awful hard to do with desks and rows, to ask people to collaborate. And so teachers have been amazingly creative in their classrooms. I’ve seen so many amazing things that folks have done with 24 desks.


DILLON: But ultimately we’ve got to break that if we’re really serious about creation, collaboration.

GONZALEZ: OK. And so some of the design things that you’re trying to teach teachers will address a lot of these things.

Where to Start

GONZALEZ: So if a teacher sort of knows that they want to change their learning space but they just really don’t know where to start or what they should do, what are some steps that you would recommend that they take?

DILLON: Yeah. A couple of things. One of those is just take a chance to go see some other classrooms. Too many teachers get trapped in maybe their classroom or the grade-level classrooms around them, but if you can get into some other schools, if you can take some time to see some pictures of other places, all of those things kind of open our mind up to what’s possible, and all of us kind of get in that rut, no matter if you’re a designer or you’re not a designer, we get into that rut.


DILLON: And then the other thing is ask students. One of my favorite questions that comes up is ask students tomorrow, “What’s new in the room? What wasn’t here yesterday?” Students are going to start naming things that have been up in the classroom since the beginning of the year. When that happens, there’s a problem. All of that stuff just becomes visual noise, and it doesn’t do anything to aid the learning. And so just those two questions alone, what’s new in the room, and then asking students what in this room supports you and what in this room deters from your learning really goes a long way.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Because the kids know. I mean I can remember being a student and there’s certain things you stare at every day and yeah, that can be a really interesting conversation.

DILLON: You know, the brain research is super clear. Every time a human being comes into a space, they visually process the entire room. So some of our rooms are visually exhausting, so we have to give kids a break around that, because by the time we actually ask them to intellectually engage, they’re visually exhausted. I had a young man, first-grader, that said, “Can you tell my teacher that this room doesn’t help me learn?” I said, “Well, why don’t you tell your teacher that?” And he said, “But my teacher tells me all the time how beautiful her classroom is. I don’t want to disappoint her.”


DILLON: I know. And every time I’m reminded of that is that how many of our classrooms are in that position where the kids know it’s not good for them, but they don’t feel comfortable telling their teacher that? We’ve got to figure out a way to break that and to get some feedback back to our teachers and from our students to our teachers and back.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Gosh. And you know, I think so many teachers do, they sort of put together the rooms based on what they’ve seen other teachers do. It’s just a culture in schools. You see what all the other classrooms look like. I think there are even teachers that go against their own instincts. They think, “Well. I kind of want some white space on my walls, but everybody else has so much stuff up there that I kind of feel like I have to.” And so to actually give them some research around why that’s not a good idea can be really helpful, I think, to support that decision.

DILLON: Yeah. Sometimes there’s a little bit of an arms race around classroom design too. Like how many soft seats can we get in? How many things can we put on the walls?


DILLON: And so we do have to break that cycle. Every day we know that teachers make thousands of micro decisions, and I’m just hoping that some of work lends some of that micro decision-making to be around the actual classroom environment. When are the shades up? When are the lights off? Can kids move and get supplies very easily? Can kids get to rival space in the room so that they can process and draw and think out loud? All of those are things that teachers have control over. I walk into a lot of spaces where the teacher owns a lot of square footage in that room, and kids don’t feel like they can go in that square footage, and that teachers own a lot of the writable space. There are teacher words up, there are teacher posters up, there are things on that writable space, and if I could do anything, I would give more writable space back to kids for them to process and Sketchnote and get all their things up on the board.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. What do some of those writable spaces look like? Because I think when a teacher hears that, writable spaces, they may not all be picturing anything. They may not know what that really means.

DILLON: Yeah, fair enough. More and more, modern furniture is, you can use dry erase Expo markers on the actual furniture. So that’s a writable space.


DILLON: It can be whiteboard, it can be portable whiteboards in a classroom. I’ve seen a hundred other variations of that where people have been very creative and hacked up their space to give kids a place to write.


DILLON: And so all of those things fit into that kind of writable space. One of my favorite classrooms is out in California. Math educator by the name of Ed Campos teaches what he calls 360 Math. So his entire room is a writable space. He actually stands in the middle of the room, and the kids stand up the entire math hour, and they do problems on the whiteboards.


DILLON: Yeah. And so very different. Not everybody’s going to have that opportunity, but he’s really changed the way that that sort of thing happens.

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Now back to the interview.

GONZALEZ: What else? What are some other things that teachers can do to change up their space? Writable spaces is a great idea. That’s something I can see teachers being able to add very quickly. I mean some teachers have got stuff up on their dry erase board. They’ve got things taped up there that block that space. So even getting some of that stuff off and saying, “This is your space to write and process things.”

DILLON: Yeah, it’s funny. Just what you said there is really important. Being able to name what the spaces are for and be able to give kids permission, just say, “Hey, that table back there is when you need time to concentrate and focus.”


DILLON: That space over there is when you just want to go draw something, get some ideas out of your head. And so the norms around flexible spaces are also really important, for us to name those, give kids some ownership over those. But I haven’t been in a classroom in the country, and I’ve been in a lot of them, that couldn’t remove 10 or 15 things. Addition by subtraction is the ultimate free hack around learning spaces. I tell teachers, “Take a trunkful of stuff, whatever size trunk of your car is, take those things out of your classroom for a couple of weeks, then you can really make a decision on whether you need them or not.


DILLON: And I have teachers over and over go, “As soon as I was able to actually free my classroom of some space, I was able to see what was possible.” And I think sometimes until you breathe the classroom, give it some air, you can’t even see what the next iteration is. And so I think that’s a huge piece of the puzzle as well.


DILLON: And then oftentimes we get caught in the trap, right? When we think about learning space design, we go directly to furniture, we go directly to the floor plan of the room.


DILLON: But we never think about the perimeter of the room. How are the walls, and every inch of your walls, either supporting or distracting from learning? Do we really need that poster? Can we make more writable space? Can we create a place where we showcase process of learning? How do we make everything really accessible? Just the walls of the room I think are another piece of the puzzle that usually don’t take money to add to. It’s usually a bit of subtraction.

GONZALEZ: Right. You know, I’ve seen a lot of more teachers in recent years sort of designating a space that is just empty that students are going to contribute to in some way, whether it’s an empty bulletin board that students are going to create or a whole corner of the room. Is that sort of part of your philosophy too of just leaving spaces empty with the intention of filling them with student-decided things?

DILLON: I think so. And that changes over time.


DILLON: I think it’s really hard to make that case that learning space design isn’t like a, “I did learning space” checkmark for teachers, and sometimes that’s hard. It’s a journey, and it’s always about tinkering. Nothing is in a complete state. So things in September and February and May should be different along the way.


DILLON: One of the great things is how do you create kind of a lo-fi creation place? We’ve oftentimes had markers and glue and scissors. I advocate deeply for adding just a chunk of cardboard to lo-fi prototype, to be able to go to a kid and say, “Hey. We just finished chapter three. I want you to go get three pieces of cardboard and summarize chapter three for me,” or “We just finished reading this chapter four. I need you to go foreshadow chapter five using three pieces of cardboard.”

GONZALEZ: So they’d make something three-dimensional with that or they just write on the cardboard?

DILLON: Yeah. So it would be a model, so yeah, it would be three-dimensional. They’d rip and tear and turn. We’re not talking about a final product. I think we know from a lot of work out there, we can take literal things, bring them into the abstract, have kids talk about them out loud. We make learning pretty sticky.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yep.

DILLON: And really all of these design changes are about making learning sticky and making learning engaging and joyful for kids because there’s a lot of places where all three of those things aren’t the reality.

GONZALEZ: Right, right. So in order to have stuff like that as part of your classroom culture, you need to have those supplies available, visible, accessible, there has to be a space in the room for all the chunks of cardboard, for example.

DILLON: Right. And, you know, in the book we really look at four spaces that we talk about. We talk about a space for collaboration, and we talked a little bit about that. We talked about a space for creation, knowing that that’s a whole bunch of things, right? When you create things, you’re not going to finish them in 30 minutes. You have to have a place to store them or put them away. We also need access to materials. I advocate for — I don’t want a pile of messy cardboard in the corner, but you can have a storage bin or a trashcan that you keep cardboard in. At some point in time, you’re not the teacher supply store, but you can have the right-sized amount of materials.


DILLON: And you know, even thinking about that, you go into places and just some coherence around what storage bins look like. Rebecca and I worked really closely with the folks at IKEA, and if they don’t do anything well, it’s storage. And so we can think more like IKEA when it comes to storage, whether that’s color palette or taking things that are out and distracting and putting them in something. We can do a lot better job at really low budget around storage and taking away kind of visual noise just using some really cheap bins from places like IKEA or wherever.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, and with the idea is that if you have, and I can picture a million classrooms like this, if you have 19 different types of storage containers, it’s just more visual noise, so getting some unity in sort of color and size and shape, it just cuts down on that visual clutter.

DILLON: Yeah. And Rebecca and I often talk about the color palette of a classroom, and that isn’t always a term that teachers have thought about. But there are a ton of programs out there where if you take a picture of your classroom and input it into something, even like Canva, it will tell you the color palette of your room, and you can start to make some conscious choices about, when I buy new things, when I take things away, I want to get closer and closer to these three colors. And as folks do that, I mean kids notice there is a coherence, there is a calming, it feels comfortable for kids. That can’t happen in a year, for most places.


DILLON: But it can be a journey that you’re on to get closer and closer to a color palette that’s coherent.

GONZALEZ: Is three kind of the ideal, sort of three main colors?

DILLON: It is. And so kind of a base color, whether that’s some sort of tan or some sort of gray, I’m not saying school gray or school tan, but then two accent colors that can really kind of pop there. And usually they aren’t primary colors, to be honest with you, and so that’s a break for a lot of our classrooms as well.


DILLON: That bright red and bright yellow and bright blue can be used, but we have to be careful that that isn’t your color palette.

GONZALEZ: OK. This is music to my ears, except I don’t know if there’s any science behind it, but primary colors drive me crazy also, but I just figured that was a personal preference. Is there some sort of brain research behind that? Why no primary colors? Or why not necessarily primary colors?

DILLON: Yeah. And to be clear, it’s like there’s no hard, I mean the research is continuing to emerge around learning space design. We’re making a lot of correlation/causation with things that weren’t about classrooms, but we do know that color affects mood, we know that color affects energy, and we know that kind of that attention, distractibility are all related to color, and so yeah, there is research and better research emerging around color, but those primary colors aren’t always the ones that are going to get you the greatest learning happening in your classroom.

GONZALEZ: OK. You mentioned that there are four types of spaces that would ideally be in a classroom: space for collaboration, space for creation. What are the other two?

DILLON: Yeah, so in education we talk so much about process, the scientific process, design thinking process, engineering design process, the list goes on. But oftentimes our classrooms don’t value or showcase process happening. We get a lot of final product, right? We get a lot of, “These are anchor charts, these are amazing papers, these are the final product.” And so Rebecca and I call for the space to showcase process. Both of us had the opportunity for our children to attend public preschool where Reggio approach was deeply embedded in that, and a part of that is documentation of the learning process. Both of us saw the power of that, and we just want to drag that across from preschool all the way up and we’ve seen a lot of creative secondary, middle school science, social studies, math teachers allowing for that process to be visualized in the classroom. Sometimes that can be an ongoing list of ideas surrounding a central question. That can look like pictures of kids working in a classroom that are up where folks are putting sticky notes on those, either praising what’s going on or asking questions. But all of it showcases that learning is messy, and all of what we know about growth mindset is that, right? We’re in a process, we’re in a growth process. And so how do we get even that growth mindset to be showcased in our schools? And then a fourth is a space for quiet. A lot of classrooms certainly have a place where they send kids to reframe and rethink. But for us, we want to make sure all classrooms have a space to validate introverts, reflection, and decompression. We have a lot of kids that come to our schools that are stressed out, that are impacted by poverty on a daily basis, that need a quiet moment in their life, and we want to make sure classrooms can be safe, caring, trauma-informed in the work they’re doing, and I think that really good learning space design, first and foremost, cares for kids and takes care of their needs so that then learning can really happen.

GONZALEZ: I love that. “A space for quiet.” OK. My first thought is listening, I try to always listen as a teacher who has, like, 35 kids in a classroom.


GONZALEZ: So how does somebody with a very full class make that happen?

DILLON: So teachers are amazing, right? I’ve seen so many creative pieces about this. That can be a portable whiteboard that gets pulled over into that space that kind of blocks somebody off. That can be a comfortable bean bag on a floor that’s behind a bookcase. That can be a desk where if someone goes over there, the norm is that you just leave them alone. So it doesn’t mean they have to disengage from the learning, but I can tell you if we don’t create those spaces where kids can move in a classroom and kids can decompress in a classroom, here’s what’s going to happen: They’re going to raise their hand and say, “Hey, can I go to the bathroom?”


DILLON: Right now, our bathrooms are our spaces for quiet for kids.

GONZALEZ: Oh gosh. That is so true.

DILLON: And it’s OK. I joke, I say, 50 percent of middle-school kids that need to go to the bathroom just need to move and just need a moment.


DILLON: And we can do that in our classrooms, but we have to be really intentional, right? As a middle school principal or middle school teacher, if we are just open, honest and transparent about why, kids respond to that really well.


DILLON: And when you’ve built that empathy and compassion in your classroom, spaces for quiet don’t have to look fancy. They are just the norm in that space.

GONZALEZ: Something that you’ve mentioned before is something called biomimicry. What is that and how does it relate to design?

DILLON: So a lot of our friends in the science realm will tell you that nature has solved most of our problems, that if we look at some of the things that animals or plants are doing, that we can find some real gems. And it’s been an interest of mind in that I think that, you start thinking about a cave and how that applies to things being quiet. When you think about erosion, and then think about what can we learn from erosion as it relates to movement in the classroom? You go to a place like a waterfall, and you hear this really powerful noise, and you start to ask yourself, what’s powerful noise in my classroom? You think of a forest fire that needs oxygen, and you’re like who is the oxygen in my classroom? Am I the only person that’s oxygen in my classroom or are all of my students oxygen in the classroom? So I love being outside. I’m a big advocate of balancing green time and screen time, and I feel like every time I’m on the trail or in the woods, I’m continually coming up with amazing ideas for classroom design, and so I would just encourage teachers to take that lens with them into the forest and see what comes from that.

GONZALEZ: OK. That is good advice.

Quick Wins: What You Can Do Right Now

GONZALEZ: So one of the things I asked you to do was just sort of give me a list of just pretty quick and easy sort of quick wins, things that teachers can do kind of right away that can make their classrooms more effective learning spaces.

DILLON: Yeah. We’ve talked about a few of these, but let’s hit those again, because making sure that on your schedule every two weeks you put something that says, “Ask my students how the classroom is serving them.”


DILLON: Because if we don’t, we’ll forget.


DILLON: So I put it on my Google Calendar. It says, “Ask students how the classroom’s treating them.”


DILLON: That’s a really easy one.


DILLON: I would say pick a few things to remove from your classroom. I would say take and ask a teacher next to you if you can teach in their classroom for an hour, just to feel what a different space looks like.


DILLON: I think that’s one. How do we utilize hallways? I was just with an amazing teacher from Chillicothe, Missouri, yesterday who was showcasing how she used the hallway. She rolled two tables out there every morning. Kids knew that they could go out there and do certain things. But we have to find a better way to utilize our hallways and extend the learning beyond the classroom. Then the other thing is how can we get outside, out into the community or outside of the community, because I really do believe that learning spaces have to go beyond the four walls of a classroom, and then how do we bring some additional experts into our classroom? When we think about a really whole, vibrant learning community, the teacher is not the only adult that’s helping that classroom to grow.


DILLON: And then whatever we can do to reduce our own footprint in a classroom, whether that’s pushing our desk up against the wall, whether that is letting kids know that they have access to all the square footage in the room. All of those things start to begin to really transform what classroom can be.

Solving Common Design Hurdles

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. So just the last thing I wanted to go through with you are some common sort of problems that teachers have, especially whenever we bring up the topic of classroom design or flexible seating. So I wanted to throw some of these at you and see what you have to say. Here is one. “My school just purchased expensive all-in-one desks, like where everything’s attached, and we have to use them. How can I make the best of this situation?”

DILLON: Yeah. So 85, 90 percent of classrooms a year from now are still going to have desks.


DILLON: I think we can think differently though. One of my suggestions around desks, yesterday I said, you have 30 desks, you’re going to have 30 desks. No one’s going to take them. No one’s going to put them anywhere else. Why don’t you make one row of six, then why don’t you make two clusters of six, and then why don’t you make a long kind of what I call a boardroom style where you have 12 desks face-to-face to each other, and then give kids choice on where to be in that classroom. Because giving kids choice and agency around where they are goes a long way to saying you trust them, they own the classroom, and democratizing the classroom, and you live with the reality of the desks.


DILLON: But as you can maybe bring one table in or you can try to move a few things around, I would just continue to tinker with what you have, but that’s a really easy way to transform a classroom out of desks and rows model.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I think when people hear “flexible seating” they immediately picture, and I’ve put these pictures up on my website, they picture the yard sale sofas, and they’re just like, “But I have these desks, so I can’t do flexible seating.” They forget that it’s the word “flexible” that’s probably the most important. It doesn’t have to be all furniture. It can still be the desks if you’re giving some options. I love the idea of just kind of clustering them in different ways and at least giving students the choice of where they’re going to sit.

DILLON: Yeah. And we know, like think of the high school science classrooms, the big, bulky blacktop tables.


DILLON: And just thinking differently about what that is as well. There’s limitations. Everybody who’s listening to this has — and that’s what’s interesting about this work. It doesn’t scale, right? And so I can give you some suggestions, and then people say, “Well, but I only have 600 square feet,” or “My fire marshal won’t let me do this.” So all of those things are real.


DILLON: And I’m a realist about this. There’s an amount of systems tolerance that your culture can handle.


DILLON: But it doesn’t mean we can’t pursue some of these things that we know are good for kids.

GONZALEZ: Right. And you mentioned fire codes. That’s another one of the problems is teachers are always saying, “Our fire codes are so strict. We can’t have anything cloth, we can’t have any pillows. I can’t have anything hanging from the ceiling.” And so then they just say, “Forget it. I’m just going to stick with my normal classroom.”

DILLON: I think the think with the fire marshals is that they really do have student safety in mind, and if we aren’t thinking about safety then shame on us.


DILLON: So we have to work with them. But there’s nothing that says we can’t have rugs or pillows or couches done right. Sometimes it has to be the right material. Sometimes it has to be lice-proof, if you just want to put it that way.


DILLON: But there are ways and we’ve worked with schools, and we’re happy to work with any schools, on giving them suggestions on how to get around some of those things as well.

GONZALEZ: Good deal. The other question, this is another really common one, is on on testing. People see these classrooms where kids are sitting all over the place, and they’re on high tables, and they’re on the floor, and they’re saying, “But what about testing, what about testing? How do teachers in those classrooms handle test days?”

DILLON: Yeah. You know, we know however kids practice is how they should take the test. So if kids are practicing and learning and doing amazing things in flexible environments, there’s no reason to think that they’re not going to perform well sitting on the floor, laying on their stomach. I guess if we’re worried about kids cheating on the test —


DILLON: You know, there’s enough space in the classroom that we can solve some of those problems, but ultimately I’m a big fan of saying — the worst thing you can do is, “Here’s how we normally learn. Now let’s sit in desks and rows for testing.” Because you haven’t learned like this all year, but now we’re going to force you into that uncomfortable situation. So with testing, I just always come back to let’s continue to design things for 95 percent of the time, not all of these one-off exceptions.


DILLON: And we’re innovative, solution-making, amazing educators. We will figure out the answer to that. That shouldn’t be the barricade for us.

GONZALEZ: Good deal. I want to make sure that people know about the book again. Remind us of the full title of your book?

DILLON: Yeah, so the book is “The Space: A Guide for Educators,” myself and Rebecca Hare. There’s actually a second book out there that’s “Redesigning Learning Spaces” that I did with three other folks, A.J. Juliani and Erin Klein and Ben Gilpin, that was published as well. So both of those are great resources.


DILLON: And then tons of resources from my world and Twitter, so I tweet out learning space photos and ideas all the time, and I’m @ideaguy42 on Twitter.


DILLON: And then more about me over at

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. I noticed in your book you recommended a book called “Make Space,” and you’ve also got this other one here. Was “Blueprints for Tomorrow” your book that you just mentioned?



DILLON: So a couple of resources that I think are excellent that folks should also look at: “Make Space” is the book that the Stanford Design School did. A lot of practical ideas, including some amazing kind of portable whiteboards called T-walls that we use. And then also big fan of the book “The Third Teacher.” It kind of launched off some of our work, and that was Cannon Designs that did that a number of years ago, but just another really accessible, high-design book.


DILLON: And then had a chance recently to be with architect designer Prakash Nair who does some amazing things. He wrote a book, “The Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning.” If there’s a school that’s out there that’s building on a wing, designing a brand new school that’s starting really from the ground up, that is a great book for you, because I think that Rebecca and I work very closely with remodel, low budget, no budget work, and certainly we’ve worked next to architecture and design firms, but we’re probably not the people that you bring in to design a brand new, from-the-ground-up building.


DILLON: Which is OK. It’s good to know what you do well and what others do well.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I can’t wait to check these books out. I love design books. So thanks so much for all of those recommendations, and thank you also just for giving me your time here, and I hope that it helps teachers sort of refresh their classrooms and just make them better spaces for kids.

DILLON: Yeah, me too. This really is about creating joy and engagement. I have two beautiful daughters that I just want them to love learning. I want them to be in learning environments that inspire them, and so that’s why I do all the hard work I do.

GONZALEZ: Thanks so much Bob.

DILLON: Thanks Jenn.

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