Honestly, I’m rarely happy when I drive by or enter a school. Most are simply miserable spaces for what we know about how humans learn.
However, I’m fascinated by my daughter’s school and find it is one of the strongest examples I’ve seen by way of spaces designed with intent. Give it a look in this five-minute video of the school and the design principles behind it.
The intentional design of…
- the ground level windows
- the hallways as learning spaces that naturally flow from the classroom
- the interactive nature of all facets in the hallways
- the lighting design
- the flexibility in space
- the flowing nature of rooms
- the varied colors and ceiling heights
- the exterior plant life
I am more and more convinced that it is about designing with intent. I should be able to ask “why is that the way it is” and there should be a thoughtful answer. Sadly, I’m not sure that is the reality in many schools.
I am fascinated by the conversations that emerge due to a 1:1 computing environment:
- how should assessment evolve?
- what is cheating vs collaboration?
- where does memorization and recall fit into the classroom?
- what constitutes engagement and how does it occur with such competing possibilities?
- what experiences are (aren’t) important to learning?
- what is literacy? critical thinking?
- what type of pacing and paths can be created instead of one path, one tool for all?
- and many more…
While these conversations are not new, access to the Internet at any time creates a heighten sense of urgency to understand and act upon these topics.
With these great conversations, I found myself reading My Insane Homework Load Taught Me How to Game the System by Elif Koc and connecting all of these questions into one central idea that Koc nails:
Doing all of my homework no longer felt realistic. My friends and I realized we didn’t have to do everything assigned to us in order to succeed in high school. We found shortcuts and we minimized our efforts in order to get the grades we wanted. The middle school “memorization not rationalization” mindset that Karl Taro Greenfield describes in his recent Atlantic essay turns into a more insidious “How can I do as little as possible and still get an A?” mentality.
Elif was a high school student just over a year ago and he soon found that learning something deeply wasn’t the purpose of school. It was getting the best grade with the least amount of resistance:
We were maximizing our academic success while minimizing our effort in certain subjects. We understood our teachers’ expectations and aimed to meet them, not to exceed them. There is a difference between being a good learner and a good student, and in high school, my peers and I learned how to be good students.
And it is hard for schools to think this equates to their students. It is easy to think this isn’t us. It is much more challenging to accept that this is probably closer to reality than not and there is a need to rethink what we want to accomplish.
All of the questions at the start of this post lead to the ultimate question that Elif seems to be trying to understand: is high school about becoming a good learner or a good student.
Maybe the objective of high school is to become a good student. I hope college is where I can become a good learner.
And I have to agree that when one looks at how most high schools approach the classroom and the focus on college/career readiness, it is all about becoming a good student that gets the scores and application needs to get into college.
All of this circles back to the questions in the beginning. The only way to begin answering those is to determine which direction: good student or good learner.
Do we have the habitats that support our desired habits? Do we have the spaces that align with our stated beliefs? Do we have the environments that model our vision?
Google’s Garage is a tremendous example of designing spaces to influence change and match spaces with beliefs best articulated from two creative geniuses.
- Frederik Pferdt: ”Really… the environment influences human behavior. So if you want to encourage creativity, and wild ideas, and moonshot thinking, you should create that exact environment which helps you achieve that.”
- Mamie Rheingold: “Google is our design space. It is a place to learn, create, and make. We were thinking about how to scale this culture of experimentation and we really wanted to help Googlers make time to work on their crazy idea. What we learned is that building a space can facilitate that.”
Okay, is this the mindset taken with the design of current school spaces like common areas, classrooms, labs, etc?
Failing to grasp and address the importance of the physical environment is a detriment to change. So… where is your school’s Google Garage? If you don’t have one, what is being done to change that reality?
I’m always fascinated when I see a transformation of the useless into the useful. These act as reminders to challenge each piece of a classroom that isn’t serving the learner experience.
Tonight, the typical delivery box took on an entirely different light.
This box arrived today carrying three pendant lights. However, the design on the box had all the ingredients for a theater: admission tickets, stage, decorations, and characters (needing designed).
Yes. We could do this without the design efforts by the company. However, this didn’t allow us to ignore the fun calling out from the box.
This calling led to an evening of theatrical performances by adult and kid alike.
What are those items in your classroom/school that we could be redesigned to promote play? to spark creation? to reshape the moment?
“I think that this experience is showing us that this year is more about our failures than our achievements,” said one of our students in Leadership and You after we completed the Marshmallow Challenge. He nailed it!
In 18 minutes, these young leaders experienced fail fast, fail often in order to achieve on a higher level. It also helped many see that sometimes you can over plan and over think when it is best to ideate, prototype, regroup, and go at it again. In fact, one group said it best when they talked about spending 13 minutes on one idea only to realize it wasn’t going to work. They regrouped and created a successful prototype in 4 minutes.
More importantly, it took the failure to get to that success.
And we could all learn from that point. Too often, we’ll drive and drive a point that isn’t the best idea simply because we spent so much time on it. We fear that this time would be considered a waste if the approach were abandoned. But it is through that failure that success emerged.
This is the fourth time I’ve used the Marshmallow Challenge and I’m always excited by the insights into creative thinking and risk-taking. But I love, more than anything, how applicable it is to each person on who they are as design thinker. Give it a try – it is a great starting point!
One of our schools has a literacy goal that includes transliteracy. It is both encouraged and expected that we explore what the vast digital tools do (both positive and negative) to various forms of expression including the written word.
Most of us have seen the various positions by the National Council of Teachers of English that support writing in the digital age. We’ve also no doubt heard that this generation of students is lacking in quality writing despite an increase in it.
What to think…
Andrea Lunsford conducted one of the most important studies on the impact of digital writing by comparing student samples from 1917 through 2006. Good writing is writing that made something happen in the world. – Dr. Andrea Lunsford
What did Dr. Lunsford conclude about the debate over whether digital technologies are hurting student writing? It isn’t if you look at their writing. This is critical. We can assume, speculate, and hope (in some cases) that blogging, texting, wiki’ing, social networking, emailing, and more are hurting students; however, this isn’t the case if we actually look at student writing and compare it to writing from the past.
- Error rate: a difference of .15 in errors per 100 words from 1917-2006 (2.11 in 1917 | 2.26 in 2006)
- Student Experience (out of class writing): deep level of engagement with writing not for class
- Length of Formal Writing: an increase in length of writing of 876 from 1917 to 2006 (162 in 1917 | 1,038 in 2006) including an increase in transcription fluency.
- Quality of Formal Writing: it is not getting worse but has grown to be more inclusive of different media along with the written word. In fact, the research points to an increase in complexity and sophistication including a redefinition of writing.
- Frequency of Writing: today’s students write much more frequently than in the past.
In a 2010 interview, Dr. Lunsford does point out changes that have occurred do digital technologies that have implications for schools:
I would point to changes in audience and audience awareness (the whole world can now be your audience, introducing a huge set of problems in trying to find effective ways of addressing an audience); the increasingly collaborative and participatory nature of writing (Google.docs and Google.wave, to mention only two), allow groups of writers to work together in real time to create documents of all kinds. Students today are much more accustomed to producing and disseminating knowledge rather than simply consuming it.
Important findings. Important changes. However, it is but one study and the study was done prior to societal immersion into the digital technologies.
What to do…
I’d like to see schools replicating the study on a smaller level is both possible and critical. I think it is especially important for schools that are or have gone 1:1.
Seth Godin’s words could very well describe what I’ve been saying about landing, bounding, and agile living.
People don’t like changing their rhythm. If you adopt the rhythm of stability, then change is a threat. Adopt the rhythm of change, though, and you’ll get restless right on schedule.
If I walked away from education tomorrow, the thing I’m most proud of is that our school is living an agile life and embracing the idea of never landing. It is amazing how everything falls into place from there.
Google is at it again. This time, they’ve made four enhancements to Google Forms. The big one is that you can now embed YouTube videos into a form!
Oh yes, I said multiple videos. With this, you can now embed multiple images (not just one) into a form. Click here to see just a slapped together example.
What else did they add?
- Insert YouTube Videos
- Show progress bar at the bottom of Form pages
- Data validation on questions (love this!)
- Custom response on closed Forms
this continues to reinforce the idea of never landing and why this philosophy by Google is so important to education. If you look at the various enhancements Google has unveiled within the Chrome OS and Google Apps within the last two months, can you imagine if we had to wait for the new release to come out? How silly does something like Google Drive 2014 sound? Chrome OS 8 or Chrome OS Tom & Jerry?
The whole notion of waiting for the new software/OS release and then waiting for some technology and instructional technology to both test and train just feels so antiquated.
In other words, this antiquated approach is saying “sorry teachers and students. We know this would be a great enhancement with embeddable videos especially given what you are doing in the classroom. However, we have to wait for the release, order it, test it, pilot it, and then train you on it. And then, we’ll find a major break where we can get this on all of the computers… maybe winter or summer break.”
Over the years, I’ve continued to talk about the need for schools to tell their story. We have the power like no other time in history to do just that and social media is the tool.
But telling the story isn’t easy. This is especially true when people see it as an addition to their already full plates. Where do I fit this in on my schedule? Who is going to do all of that?
Time. It is always time.
What is missed, however, is that at any given moment your story is being told by those living it: students and staff!
The question is how do you harvest or curate those micro-stories so that the overall story of the school is told.
Enter social media, aggregation tools, and your school website
The Power of Micro-Stories
One way that we are attempting to capture the micro-stories is through what we’ve deemed “Social Buzz”.
What happens when you click on social buzz? It takes you to the a flowing visual of micro-stories from various social media outlets.
While just getting started, imagine if you would how hashtags used by students, staff, and parents start feeding into this social buzz world.
This means hundreds to thousands of people contributing to the story that is their school. It means an authentic, up close and personal look into what it means to be a Spartan, a Titan, or (fill in your mascot).
From the mundane and trivial to the sparks of brilliance, micro-stories are the real story. Just think what this does for community. What this does for awareness. What this does for interests, joys, and passions.
Walk the sidewalks at Disneyland or World and you’ll notice something rather intriguing as you weave around the park: there are no 90-degree corners.
With 90-degree angles, you create a sort of march and order that has lines of people moving in a structured way from point A to point B. With flowing sidewalks, you create free movement and exploration that has people flowing in many ways with many purposes. They are designed for what it means to be human not an assembly line.
In other words, Disney sidewalks are designed with intent.
Think about that. The sidewalks are designed with a distinct purpose for how they want people interacting and moving. This is the case for each part of Disney.
Open the Door of a Classroom
Now open the door of most classrooms and ask these questions:
- what features were designed with intent?
- why are the features designed this way?
- what is the space saying about the desired experience?
If we are honest, there is little intent put into classrooms. In fact, classroom design pretty much has two phases:
- architects with administration construct a new classroom using the same 900sqft floorplan
- teachers doing the best they can with what they are given
Three Mindset Shifts
These are three mindsets that I believe are holding schools back from rethinking classrooms:
- Classrooms are Sacred Ground: The first mindset that needs to shift is that the classrooms are off limits. If we are serious about the impact of physical space on learning, we need to place our focus on the classroom. It is easy to engage in space design with libraries and common areas. It is more challenging but worthwhile to have the conversation with teachers about the physical environment that has the greatest impact on learning: the classroom.
- Design without Intent: The second mindset that needs to shift is that the classroom (or any space) is designed off what was done in the past. If we are serious about the impact of physical space on learning, we need to place our focus on what is possible NOT what has always been done. We need to place our focus on designing each facet of the classroom with intent: walls, floors, technologies, ceilings, sound, lighting, paint, furniture, storage, seating, experiences, and so much more.
- Furniture equals Space Redesign: The third mindset that needs to shift is that the classroom can be redesigned by simply adding furniture. If we are serious about the impact of physical space on learning, we need to place our focus on more than furniture. Creating a learning space is not as simple as buying new furniture.
There is much more to designing spaces. However, things won’t change if we avoid designing classrooms, design them like they’ve always have been designed, or make superficial changes to them.
It is time. The classrooms are outdated and designed with management not learning in mind. It is time to rethink classroom spaces.