The Importance of Physical Space for Faculty Performance

While space was the final frontier for countless episodes of Star Trek, creating the optimal teaching and learning spaces may be the final academic frontier for centers of teaching and learning (CTLs). As Tom Kelley, CEO of IDEO put it in his “Forward” to Make Space (2012), “Space matters. We read our physical environment like we read a human face” (p. 4).

The importance of physical space is a concept we delved into in both Teaching Applied Creative Thinking (2013)—see Chapter V on “The Learning Environment for Optimal Creative Thinking”—and Transforming Your Students into Deep Learners (Stillwater: New Forums, 2016)—see “Strategy VII: Creating Spaces for Deep Learning.” In these books, we enunciated several key principles for achieving Kelley’s goal: “Space is a valuable tool that can help you create deep and meaningful collaborations in your work and life” (p. 5).

At the moment, our CTL includes three major spaces: the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity (a space housed in the campus library with a large open area, a high-tech classroom, breakout spaces for small-group collaboration, presentation practice rooms, and a media wall with large monitors), the Teaching & Learning Center (consisting of two offices and a 33×37 foot Faculty Lounge), and a new space in the old campus bowling alley for us to build an experimental classroom. The Noel Studio was completed in 2010, and the Faculty lounge in 1939.

Related Reading: Transforming Your Students into Deep Learners

Rebuilding a Space by Principles

This past year, we have been refurbishing the 75+-year-old Faculty Lounge, an Art Deco relic of opulence. Forty years ago the Faculty Lounge was the campus version of the 18th-century coffee house. Faculty came from across campus and often had to wait for a seat. In an era before social media and campus email, the lounge was where one learned what was happening on campus, official and unofficially (the rumor mill ran as often at the coffee grinder). Our central focus in the refurb was to transform the space from a comfortable lounge of yesteryear to a trendy, contemporary workshop space that invited faculty in to participate.

Our first upgrade was obviously technological. We had a new wireless access point installed that could handle heavy traffic. From that time we met quite often and followed several design principles we brought out in Teaching Applied Creative Thinking:

  • Natural light
  • Bright colors
  • Flexible and comfortable furniture
  • Writable spaces (pp. 23-24).

The Faculty Lounge has two large east-facing windows as well as a French door, so we have plenty of natural light (in fact, so much light beams through in the early morning that shades are a must). Overhead lighting consists of four decorative but dim lights as well as a light circle we refer to as the Cone of Silence (thank you, Get Smart). Given the building’s basic knob-and-tube wiring system (our budget prohibits such extensive rewiring), the most effective upgrade was switching to LED lights.

Bright colors (which adorn the Noel Studio) presented a problem for the Faculty Lounge. The space is fairly traditional. As a result, we have lighter colors on the walls and even some colorful paintings and posters. The rug is basically a multi-colored brown, the tables are a dark wood, and the chairs contain a mixture of blues and grays. Obviously, combining the past and present necessitated a compromise.

Aside from the colors, the furniture’s main element is movability. We have seven tables with six chairs, and all seven tables can be reconfigured to achieve Kelley’s “deep and meaningful collaborations.” As the lounge contains a fireplace, we built a foundation of a sofa and two chairs in front of it. In its previous iteration, the lounge contained eight wheel-less, square tables, each able to seat only four people. As a result of the upgraded space, we will now be able to accommodate 50 people for interactive faculty development sessions.

Writable spaces also followed the principle of movability. Rather than try to attach screens to old plaster-and-lath walls, we went with two smartboards and two monitors on wheels. The latter meant that even for presentations we wouldn’t need the traditional projector and screen because anyone can access the movable monitors.

Related Reading: How to Improve Faculty Attendance at Higher Ed Professional Development Events

The Key Principle: Mentoring from the Middle

Our major principle was not spatial, but pedagogical. In Teaching Applied Creative Thinking, we stressed the importance of spatial and technological decisions emanating from pedagogical preferences, and in the same book we posited that the teaching and learning paradigm best suited for students is the mentor from the middle. Obviously, such a pedagogical concept underscores the need for the instructor/mentor not to be a sage at the front of the room or even a guide on its side, but rather a teacher-learner immersed in the middle of the group. To translate this concept into reality necessitated running a thin, flat wire under the rug to a podium/pocket cart at its center.


The new workshop space debuts this fall. We plan to run all our Teaching & Learning Innovation (TLI) series workshops in it as well as our three-to-four professional learning communities. More importantly, we plan to assess how the faculty interacts in this new space, including how it is used and how it functions and whether their collaborations actually result in deep learning.

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the limits of my space mean the limits of my world. The more optimal the space, the more optimal the learning.



Russell CarpenterDr. Russell Carpenter is director of the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity and Program Director of the Minor in Applied Creative Thinking at Eastern Kentucky University. He is also Assistant Professor of English. Dr. Carpenter has published on the topic of creative thinking, among other areas, including two texts by New Forums Press. In addition, he has taught courses in creative thinking in EKU’s Minor in Applied Creative Thinking, which was featured in the New York Times in February 2014. Meet Russell.