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Visual Literacy in Physical Spaces

Ben Feigert wrote a post that I think helps expand our thinking around visual literacy to not just be online but in the physical world that we live and teach in.

The more important design issues for students, I believe, are awareness of the ways designers use apparently-benign tools to shape user experience. I want my students to know about and critique face-tracking software at retail stores that businesses use to squeeze another point of profit. And I want kids to understand that their real-life shopping experience is exquisitely, intentionally shaped by design choices backed by EEG and eye-tracking data, even as their online world is, too.

It’s a great point….visual are used more than just to make things look good…they effect us every day in the real world as well.

Which has me thinking…..

How much do we pay attention to the visual space of our classroom?

Classrooms are great places to see how visuals might effect learning. Just because the walls are covered does that mean it’s a good classroom? Where is the white space? Does the set up of the classroom allow for different learning styles and types? You can find a lot of information on the internet about how classroom are not built for learning….we know this…and yet we continue to build classrooms the same and furnish them with the same equipment.

When you move to a technology rich classroom, the make up of the room needs to change as well. You can’t introduce a powerful new way of learning without it effecting everything else.

I want my classroom to look like Starbucks

 Some rights reserved by ontourwithben

Some rights reserved by ontourwithben

Why is it students will go to Starbucks rather than the library or their own bedroom to do their homework. Why do many professional hangout there doing work? Why will I….a guy that works from home….pack all my stuff up every so often and work at a Starbucks?

What makes Starbucks so peaceful? So perfect to either work alone if you choose or work in a group if you need to? What if our classrooms could look like Starbucks?

There is a great article that I use in some of my presentations titled Six Spaces of Social Media. It could just as easily be titled Six Spaces of the Classroom. Here is what the author suggests for the six spaces. I have changed the examples to be classroom based rather than social media based. See what you think.

Secret Spaces
Behaviours: Private, intimate communication, normally with only one or two others, often using private references, slang or code
Expectations: Absolute privacy and control over the communication between users, and no unauthorised communication from third parties (eg spam)
Examples: reading area, self-work area


Group Spaces
Behaviours: Reinforcing the identity of a self-defined group, and your position within the group, eg ‘stroking‘ behaviour to let the group share a sense of belonging, or mild competitiveness to signal hierarchies within the group (eg who has the most friends, posts, tags, etc)
Expectations: A shared reference point for the group – eg a band, football club, school, workplace, region, etc. Rules about approving membership of the group, and icons for the group to signal their membership (badges, profiles, etc)
Examples: group work, collaborative projects


Publishing Spaces
Behaviours: Creating your own content or showcasing your talents to an audience outside of your usual social group
Expectations: The ability to control the context and presentation of your creative content. Ways to receive feedback, comments and advice from other users.
Examples: eportfolios, blogs, bulletin boards in the hallway


Performing Spaces
Behaviours: Playing a defined role within a game structure. Experimenting through simulation, rehearsal and teamwork to achieve a goal. Iterative exploration or repetition of activities in order to perfect their performance
Expectations: A clear set of rules that is understood by all players. Clear rewards for success or failure. The ability to test the boundaries of the game structure, or to perform extravagantly to show off your talents
Examples: work area, performance area


Participation Spaces
Behaviours: Co-ordination of lots of small individual acts to achieve a common goal. Shared belief in the goal, and advocacy to encourage participation by others.
Expectations: Rules or structures that help co-ordinate activity towards the goal. The ability to create micro-communities within larger participation groups – eg a group of friends going on a political march together, or a workplace group created to train for a marathon
Examples: Shared Spaces, Shared Desks, Group Desks


Watching Spaces
Behaviours: Passive viewing of a linear event as part of a large group. Organising a group to attend an event, and sharing experiences afterwards
Expectations: Spectacle, entertainment, a feeling of thrill or joy. A shared sense of occasion, or of being taking out of your everyday existence for the duration of the event. Mementos or relics of the event (eg programmes, tickets, recordings, photos, etc)
Examples: Smartboard, computer listening area, audio/visual area

The next time you walk into Starbucks think about these spaces and how a Starbucks is set up.

Need an idea for a blog post? How about take a picture of your classroom and show us how your classroom is designed to be visual and productive. My good friend Clarence Fisher did this a few years ago.

6 thoughts on “Visual Literacy in Physical Spaces

  1. Profile photo of Jeff Utecht

    Sorry for the messy quotes….we’ll get that fixed.

    Found a bug….W00T!

  2. Profile photo of Kayo Ozawa

    Jeff’s article on Visual literacy and physical spaces makes me realize how difficult it is to get away from the stereotype of presentations (too much text, too many bullet points) because of the way we manage our classrooms, the way we have seating arrangements, and controlled groups, even if we do group work. Although we do not want to lose control as classroom managers, we want to make our learning environments conducive to learning. Especially in a Japanese school with an extended English program, it is really hard for the other teachers to acknowledge that the “performing space” you mentioned above may actually be an important learning space.
    With group spaces, participation spaces, watching spaces, and of course secret spaces, these can exist in the Japanese classroom without much friction with the other staff. In any case, the concept of “Design, don’t format” seems to apply to how the classroom is laid out, beyond how we present papers and give presentations. How can I make my classroom more like Starbucks without getting in trouble for lack of management?

    1. Profile photo of Jeff Utecht

      Love your “Design, don’t format” quote that is really good!

      “How can I make my classroom more like Starbucks without getting in trouble for lack of management?”

      Well you are in this graduate program that is “making you do it” that what I have others tell Admin anyway. Call this program stupid call it innovative tell your admin what ever they need to hear so you can take some risks and try things out for awhile. The worse that happens is you design your classroom differently for awhile it doesn’t work and you go back to a more traditional way. But you tried it, you learned something, and you can blame it all on this program and me if you would like. :)

  3. Profile photo of Vivian

    Thanks for doing the hard work of thinking for us, Jeff. This is useful for making sure our classrooms have spaces for these different activities or at least prioritize the ones that matter the most at any give time (ex. term?)–depending on the planned activities for that unit.

    Furniture should be moving around a few times during the year, I would think–if we keep these types of spaces in mind.


  4. Profile photo of Patricia Moreno

    Love it! – A Starbucks Classroom – what a spontaneous, relaxed and encouraging environment where one can socialize, exchange ideas, and learn from one another with guided instruction from the internet and a teacher/facilitator. Visual space could not be more important for one’s well-being and to promote creativity, good social skills, learning and laughter – it is one of our tools par excellence.
    I have toyed now and then with something similar to your “Spaces” but called them Stations – where a particular type of activity or learning would happen at that “Station”, and students could rotate and experience the offerings of each “Space” which overlap but are still distinct. Great concept – offering a space(s) were we can be active and engaged in our own experience.

  5. Profile photo of Ben Feigert

    Getting to this a little late–sorry! Thanks for quoting my post and adding some context for it. I definitely like the idea of intentionally designing our classrooms for learning. (Once, i was teaching a tech class in a room with bolted-down desks in long rows that were impossible to squeeze behind. Disaster.)

    Anyway, let’s be thoughtful about our classroom spaces and seize the tools of retail designers, repurposing them to learning.

    But the dark side is that design in Starbucks is oriented strictly around their squeezing another dollar out of you. Their design is, at heart, authoritarian and controlling: you’re a wandering wallet to be manipulated. That’s their whole goal. And it’s not hard to imagine our own classroom designs as similarly controlling and manipulative, just prettier. We have to be careful to democratize the spaces, letting students drive and create. Otherwise, we’re just authoritarian teachers in the old school model, with couches instead of desks.


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