Making Learning Modern: Redesigning Classrooms

“Create places that promote conditions of wonder and curiosity and that catalyze the imagination of children.”

high tech highAs a space designer for the past two years, I’ve spent a great deal of time in schools looking at spaces through a lens of both an educator and that of a designer.  As you might expect, the physical spaces of schools are very similar and most were designed to a serve a different time in education.  My role has been to help schools change that and to recraft the available spaces of school into locations that are capable of supporting a modern approach to learning.

It has been the trips through the school corridors, and subsequent investigations into the spaces of school, predominately the classrooms, that have influenced my perception of the current conditions of learning spaces in schools.  The typical school is composed of  double-loaded corridors (a hallway with classrooms on either side) with classrooms that have steel frame desks arranged in rows, all pointed forward toward a dedicated front of the classroom.  The room furniture and arrangement exhibits an inertia that inhibits the opportunity to reshape the space to support a range of learning experiences. Walls are generally beige or some other non-descript color and are adorned with bulletin boards and posters that serve to decorate the room but not necessarily support the learning that is occurring there.  Generally, there is a teacher desk, whiteboards, and perhaps some interactive wall technology associated with a digital projector.  Primary grade classrooms are similar but typically have different zones for learning (for example, a storytelling area) that have been established and are intended for different types of instruction and learning.

Everyone reading this is probably not surprised by my description of school space.  These conditions have existed in schools for decades.

Certainly the world surrounding schools has changed, and how people interact, communicate, create, learn and share what they know has been forever changed by the connections afforded by technology.  It has been interesting to watch schools roll out 1:1 technology programs, put contemporary technology in the hands of every student, and then realize that their current spaces lack the capacity to leverage of the affordances of ubiquitous technology.  I often wonder if 1:1 programs will be the necessary catalyst required to rethink learning spaces.

The good news is that many schools are beginning to be more aware of the relationship between space and learning, how their current spaces impact learning and influence the learning process, and what they realistically can do to improve where their students learn within their existing building footprint, as well as beyond.

So, what can be done to improve the learning spaces of school?

The Student Learning Experience: A Framework for Design

The process of design can help educators step beyond their current mindset and think in new ways that can promote and establish new conditions for student learning.  Design encourages ideation and innovation, and the opportunity to imagine a new and plausible future for the relationship between students, space and learning.

Designers initially focus on experience, and never “things.”  This means that the process of design in association with spatial change seeks to uncover the desired experience for learning in that school.  That is always the first step.  It has been my experience that schools have a tendency to “think things” first, such as what type of furniture, technology, lighting and finishes should be in a classroom, and then it gets ordered and placed in classrooms.  By considering the experience first, intelligent decisions can be made later on the “things” that will intentionally support the learning experience.

There are many ethnographic techniques to illuminate the learning experience, but all focus on reading the culture of learning in a school- it’s ceremonies, it’s language, processes, and nuances – what makes the school what it is.  This process is inclusive and engages the entire school community, and seeks to make sense of the core values of the school and its larger community and what that means for student learning.

Ultimately, the learning experience is shaped by where it occurs.

Designers then distill this information into a set of “design drivers” that provide a framework for guiding the design of spaces that support the intended experience.  These are declarative statements that offer an invitation to learners – literally a manifesto of expectations for learning composed of 8 to 10 statements that specifically represent how students will learn in the school.  For example, these statements could be:

  • In our school, students will have opportunities to experience a range of learning opportunities from individual learning experiences to collaborative learning interactions within both physical and digital learning environments.
  • In our school, students will have autonomy to express what they have learned in ways of their own choosing and in a variety of formats.
  • In our school, students will have an opportunity to use contemporary technology to support and extend their learning with the expectation that this technology will also enable them to create and contribute their knowledge beyond school.

All schools generally have a mission and vision statement.  However, I’ve seen very few that have a manifesto that declares a specific set of expectations for learning, and the skills and dispositions that support modern learners.  Establishing this set of ideas is critical as they will be translated into space design.

Making the Case for Space:  A New Reality

Michael Morrison, the Chief Technology Officer of Laguna Beach Unified School District, in Laguna Beach, California, has embarked on an ambitious plan to rethink learning spaces in his schools.  Morrison and his team created a video that discusses how the current design of classrooms does not necessarily support the work and learning environment that students will inhabit beyond school.  And while humorous, it accurately suggests that there is a disconnect between the spaces of school and those beyond school.

So in general, what do those spaces beyond school look like?  There are spaces that are crafted to support creative exploration and incubation of ideas (1871 in Chicago, Illinois), spaces for making and creating (makerspaces), spaces that support on-demand access to creative work space (coworking spaces) and informal locations for social interaction called “third places” (spaces between work or home, a bookstore or coffeehouse could be examples).

The spaces mentioned here, such as the makerspace and incubator space, are crafted to support a specific set of experiences.  They look very different from the typical spaces of  “school”  and engender different types of interactions.   And, given that, how could the current spaces in your school be rethought to help your kids develop the skills and dispositions that would enable them to successfully negotiate and employ these new types of spaces to support learning and their careers?

What if schools embarked on a program designed to create similar spaces in schools, that supported the connections, interactions and opportunities afforded by these types of new spaces, and engaged students in a completely new way?

The Upshot:  Linking Experience, Space and Engagement

Connie Yowell, of the MacArthur Foundation, suggests that the core question surrounding education is about engagement, defining the experience, and paying attention to the needs of kids.  That can begin with creating engaging spaces that are flexible, agile, and adaptive (capable of changing as the expectations for learning change over time) that can support the development of learners that are likewise flexible, agile, and adaptive.

Ultimately, the learning experience is shaped by where it occurs.  The design of spaces where your students learn contribute to their expectations for learning, how they learn, and how they are engaged at school.  Their perceptions of the spaces of your school contribute to how relevant they believe your school is in their learning and in their future.

Today, learning can occur in many different locations; school is a single node in a complex ecology of spaces where students can learn.

There is much to do around improving school spaces.  It is an exciting time to consider how this may occur, and schools have a unique opportunity to begin creating spaces that support and energize modern learning.

Starting a Conversation:

Initiate a discussion about the desired student learning experience that you want for your students.  From this conversation, develop 8-10 statements that create a “student learning manifesto” that is both a declaration and invitation into learning, and that provides a framework for learning space change based in the expectations that the school community has for learning.

Discuss how your current spaces support the student learning manifesto.  From this conversation, do a space inventory walk in your schools to determine the types of spaces that are present that can support each of the manifesto statements.  Also, be sure to define key components of the manifesto before you begin; for example, if you want collaborative learning, you must have a community definition of what collaboration means before you can accurately assess what constitutes a space capable of supporting collaboration.

Visit and spend time in spaces beyond school.  Do this after you have thought about the student learning experience.  See how these spaces, and their design, could support your expectations and use this experience to shape a discussion around how your desired experience manifests in modern spaces.

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