I had some fun this morning with this google doc asking for thoughts on "must haves" for the PBL classroom. Here's what I wrote:
Tables that seat 4 to 6 and chairs that are easy to move around the room and into the hallways are a must. If it's appropriate, have areas around the school or in the hallways where groups can earn the right to go and work. Use "chalkboard" paint or other easily cleaned coating for at least one wall to brainstorm or create - or- use an easily cleaned metal so you can use magnets on the wall. Have an area of the room specifically set up for working creatively ( paints, scissors, paper, glue etc available and stocked ). Move the "teacher area " away from the door and somewhere central. Finally set up walls so that students can face any direction and still be facing the front of the room.
What experiences drove me to this list? First, collaboration is the key to PBL. And it works best, in my opinion, when all participants are able to see each other. With the need for a horizontal surface it makes sense to use tables. If the tables are too big or too heavy then the room can't be easily adjusted to meet the needs of the activity that is to be conducted.
The walls in the PBL classroom should be the canvas where students brainstorm or post ideas. These should be the places that they display their mid-planning sketches or passages. This allows for other students, the teacher, or another outside observer to post critical comments for consideration. When students enter the room they should see that they are entering a room where thinking and creating occurs. Engineering classrooms and art rooms shouldn't be the only rooms with this motif.
If you are going to foster creativity, then have the tools of creativity available to the students and have a set routine for when and how to get materials. Whether it is the arrangement of the furniture or some other distinct method, have this area of the classroom be, obviously, separate from the rest of the learning area. Many (most?) science classrooms are set up this way. The lab areas are separate from the instructional area.
Finally, avoid putting the teacher at the "front" of the classroom. This is a collaborative environment and everyone should have the opportunity to be the center of attention. If students know that at any time their area of the classroom could be the focal point then they have to be prepared to lead discussions or, in some other way, be a critical part of the learning that is going on in that classroom.
Designing a PBL classroom is an awesome responsibility. Take time to do your homework. Look at what others might be doing in their classroom. But most importantly do what you and your students need for successful learning.