Story Magazine

Fall, 2012

Sacred Spaces: Redesigned classrooms merge tradition with innovation

by Kari Aanestad, M.Div. '12 and Ph.D. 1st year

With last fall's completion of Olson Campus Center renovations, ongoing program and curriculum redesign for first theological degrees and anticipated renovations to other campus spaces, a number of faculty and staff have been part of an exciting process to discern: What is a classroom and what happens there?

"Luther Seminary is committed to a culture of continuous development in teaching and learning," said Michael DeLashmutt, dean of first theological degrees. "Part of this continuous development is reflected in the ongoing redesign of our teaching and learning spaces themselves."

A sacred space

"When it came to redesigning those spaces, we didn't want to assume right away that we knew what the best classroom for us is," said Ryan Torma, director of learning design and technology. "We decided to discern together what the best teaching and learning looks like at Luther Seminary. We conducted research among faculty on campus and reviewed the broader scholarship on classroom design and pedagogy."

"We realized in this process that the classroom is sacred," said Jessicah Duckworth, assistant professor of congregational and community care leadership. "What does sacredness and holiness in the classroom look like? How does space function in caring for one another in holy moments with each other and with God? These are all fascinating questions with which we still wrestle."

"A classroom is sacred in one sense that it is a space marked off for a purpose that is bigger than any one of us," said Sarah Henrich, professor of New Testament. "We engage each other there. It's really characteristic of any assembly when you bring the world in: You transcend what you came in intending to do and even what you imagined you would do."

Testing ground

The research and reflections on classroom design and pedagogy have inspired a pilot project: a redesigned learning space in Northwestern Hall room 232, geared toward facilitating more collaborative-based teaching and learning.

"We're testing out ideas, which are really cutting-edge thinking on classroom learning and design," Torma said. "With NW232 we will be able to test out these ideas by developing them, adapting them and then possibly redesigning them for future classroom renovations on campus."

Instead of the traditional lecture-based classroom layout with tables and chairs facing a podium at the front of a room, NW232 will have four tables stationed around a central point in the middle of the room. There will be whiteboards on the north and south walls, projector hookups at each table and chairs that swivel.

"Newer technology is transforming the ways we teach and think about teaching," said Paul Lokken, dean of graduate theological studies. "If we are going to have a space that facilitates that transformative learning, we need open minds that make creative use of technology."

In thinking about new ways of teaching and implementing technology in the classroom, Luther Seminary shows a deep commitment to preparing the best possible leaders to serve the church. And that preparation should start in the physical space in which students learn. Implementing this type of technology directly into students' learning spaces will only enhance their engagement and learning.

A classroom for everyone

"With the sort of classroom design we are implementing in NW232, a group of students could work together on a project in class, plug their computers into the projector hookup at their table, and then project their work on two separate walls, sharing it with the entire class," Torma said. "What we're trying to do is find ways to accommodate different teaching and learning styles as well as course subjects, all of which includes redesigning a number of spaces on campus for more team-based pedagogy."

In spite of these classroom redesign projects geared toward facilitating collaborative teaching and learning in new ways, traditional lecture-based classroom layouts will still be available on campus.

"We are blessed with an incredibly diverse faculty, some of whom are very gifted lecturers and others who prefer to also incorporate group work experiences in their teaching and learning," Torma said. "We are learning that not every classroom has to do everything and that we can better support different teaching and learning styles if we do not have to support them in the same room."

"Going forward, we hope that by exposing students to a wider range of teaching styles, we can encourage students to explore and experiment with new ways of teaching in their own ministry contexts," DeLashmutt said. "We hope that by modeling innovation, we can foster innovation in the church."

Tradition and change

"Graduate level theological education as a sector is going through incredible changes right now," Torma said. "What is exciting about what Luther Seminary is doing is that we are exploring how to do ministry in a changing environment."

In light of this rapidly changing world, Luther Seminary continues to find ways of meeting new needs as they arise while staying connected to the theological traditions of its Lutheran heritage.

"This project on classroom redesign is finally connected to Luther Seminary's missional commitment, which pays deep attention to the way the story is embodied," Duckworth said. "The more our seminary spaces can help us be church--the body of Christ in relationship with one another--the more the students will transfer those skills to other Christian communities."