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Claire Gallagher: Designing Classrooms with Students in Mind

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Claire Gallagher, Ed.D., Professor of Education
Photo: Russ DeSantis

When Claire Gallagher, Ed.D., looks at a classroom, she sees more than desks and chairs. As an architect and an educator, the Georgian Court University professor of education sees an opportunity to help more students learn.

Faculty Focus Claire Gallagher classroom
Dr. Gallagher demonstrates some of the ways students can choose to organize the modular furniture in Raymond Hall’s model classroom. Photo: Russ DeSantis

The autocratic school design of the last few hundred years is increasingly a thing of the past, Dr. Gallagher says. “In general, schools are being designed for student-focused, student-driven learning,” she says.

What does that look like? Learners have choices of places to go within a classroom, where they can sit or lie down during the lesson. Adjacent classrooms allow teachers and students to have access together to form groups or learn together. Some schools literally increase transparency with more glass-walled rooms and walls that can be moved so that the classroom is both indoors and outdoors, taking advantage of school settings with beautiful natural areas.

Dr. Gallagher applies her creative approach to teaching and learning in her ongoing work with Georgian Court alumna Beth Topinka, a science teacher and director of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) at Millstone Elementary School in Millstone, New Jersey. Dr. Gallagher has been a mentor to Ms. Topinka since the teacher studied at Georgian Court. She says Topinka’s integration of new science standards is a great example of the power of new approaches to learning. Ms. Topinka and her third- and fourth-graders won a national problem-solving award for their work with invasive grasses—a topic she also explored with GCU biology professor Louise Wootton, Ph.D.

Beyond GCU and New Jersey, Dr. Gallagher is walking her talk about the evolution of classrooms. As chair of the Committee on Architecture for Education of the American Institute of Architects, she’s involved in lobbying Congress to impress upon them that school design is a critical part on learning—and one that must be considered as we look at building communities. She has also worked with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture and the neuroaesthetics project of the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“Part of the advocacy on Capitol Hill is to change the definition of infrastructure in this country to include schools, public buildings, libraries, and other buildings where Americans spend time and learn,” she says.

Dr. Gallagher believes that classroom design will be more integrative in the future—and that’s a good thing for learners. Just as computers are now common in classroom settings instead of relegated to a “computer room,” classrooms will begin to integrate other learning tools from various disciplines to help all learners grasp a broader variety of subject matter. She says that “maker spaces,” where students can integrate 3D printing and create things with their hands are the next big thing.

“Advocating for equity in children’s access to well-designed schools—designed to resonate with pedagogy and resulting in positive changes in teaching and learning—is my goal, as well as increasing awareness of what is possible rather than what has been,” she says.

Dr. Gallagher is one of many faculty members who are also teaching courses at GCU@Hazlet, Georgian Court’s partnership program with Brookdale Community College that offers bachelor’s degrees in business administration, English, interdisciplinary studies, psychology, and a teacher certification program.

This article also appears in Faculty Focus 2017, Georgian Court’s report of faculty scholarship and creative activity. Story contributed by Gwen Moran.

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About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by Money.com and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, GCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.