Design is the application of intent – the opposite of happenstance, and an antidote to accident.
The quote I open this post with is from Robert L. Peters, a designer, thinker, and professor originally from Canada, but teaching globally. This is especially apropos because of the task this week, designing a classroom, and because this is something I thought about constantly while teaching. Design influences frame of mind, expectation, and ultimately, behavior in any given space. Schools, in my opinion, haven’t paid enough attention to design, which is why we struggle to accomplish collaborative learning or inquiry-driven learning goals.
Greg Green is the principal of Clintondale High School in Detroit. Greg and I spent time together working with a team on the Four Pillars of Flipped Learning. We were tasked with explaining and classifying Flexible Environments. Greg and I talked about the types of spaces that must be present in any classroom to support all types of student learning needs. Because I am not currently in the classroom, I took some creative liberty and designed the ideal classroom space based on my discussions with Greg. The four areas we identified were:
- Individual space
- Group (collaborative) work spaces
- Small group instruction
- One on one instruction
Obviously, these could be accomplished in any variety of ways, and I approached it through an intentional floor plan, furniture, flow, and available resources.
Each area of the classroom is designed to meet a particular need. It is also easy to get up and move around as needs change throughout the course of a class. A student could begin working individually, but easily move to another area of the building to join his or her group, or get some extra help from the teacher.
A main argument for the need of varying learning spaces comes from Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. According to Garnder, people have cognitive strengths they pull from to solve problems (Brualdi 1996). We’re all familiar with classifying students as “visual” or “kinesthetic” learners. However, there is no evidence suggesting that focusing on particular facets of intelligence described by learning style theorists helps students succeed (Riener, Willingham 2010). Design as an effort to meet these multiple intelligences is shortsighted and doesn’t address the needs of learning as a practice.
For such an ambitious undertaking, the entire community would need to be involved. School leaders, teachers, designers, parents, and most importantly, students, should have a say in the way the space is structured and implemented. More often than not, students know their comfort zones and how to address their own needs. Without the correct space, for example, a student can create a space of individual learning by using earbuds in a noisy room. It is the task of the teacher to help students evaluate what kind of environment is most conducive to learning. The space should support the behavior we want to see in a given situation.
Placing a cost estimate is nearly impossible because of all the variables involved. We can go for top of the line digital tools and put the cost into a prohibitive zone, or we can evaluate the needs of the space and work to solve those needs effectively. Aside from furniture, this learning space only has large televisions for presentations or discussion on digital media. Multiple whiteboards are included for on-the-fly collaboration, problem solving, or brainstorming. There are no computers in this space because learners are often using their own device(s). Comfort is important, and the task of learning an unfamiliar tool can often get in the way of focusing on the work being done.
Large projects are very difficult to implement all at once. With this particular project, I think the mindset of what schools should look like and do will be a major barrier. Schools in their current form have been around since the early 20th century. The system of compartmentalized education is such a part of our culture, that a shift in a direction that gives students freedom and choice in their learning path is a major uphill battle. If we can begin talking about schools the same way we talk about libraries and community centers, design change will follow close behind.
Brualdi, A. 1996. Multiple intelligences: Gardner’s theory. ERIC/AE Digest Series EDO-TM-96-01. Retrieved from http://www.springhurst.org/articles/MItheory.htm
Riener, C., Willingham, D. 2010. The myth of learning styles. [Digital] Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. September-October 2010. Retrieved from http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html