Preparing for New Learning Spaces

iStock_000010150155SmallWhat will you design?

I recently received a request to discuss my ideas on what a school district should consider when preparing to build a new school.  As you might expect for any school district, developing an answer to this question is a daunting and challenging task but one that should be met with the utmost vigor and celebration – how many districts get to build a new school in today’s education climate?

Of course, the danger in that opportunity is that a school gets built.  I’m serious about that – the last thing that should get built is a 2012 version of a 1968 school.  With what we know now about learning, what we know about learning technologies, and what we know about the relationship of space to learning suggests that new thinking around school design is required. I’ve said before that the first step in redesigning a classroom is to discard the notion that it has to be a classroom.  The same goes for schools.

To get started, here are my thoughts.

1.  Start by developing a language capable of supporting change.  Start developing a climate where there can be an open exchange of ideas, where people listen to each other, where people do not interrupt each other, and where all are heard.  Within this new language, there are no “Yeah Buts,” and no barriers for expression.  All ideas have value and merit.  This new language has no words that can be used to express preconceived notions of what should be based on what has always been.

If there is no openness among colleagues and community, and if you cannot express ideas without raised eyebrows, if there is not a collaborative climate around the design process, you’re done.  Let me say that again – you’re done. Say hello to the new school, same as the old school.

Let the climate of the design process be the start of a new culture in your organization – note that I was careful to use the word climate above and in the first part of this sentence.  I believe very strongly that organizational culture is very difficult to change, but that change can begin by changing the current climate.  I also believe that climate informs culture, and if that climate is strong enough, and persists long enough, the climate can promote change by translating into culture.

2.  Understand that you should design a school, not create one.  For example, If you ask an architect to create a library, you’ll get a library.  We all know what that looks like, and so do they.  But if you ask them to design a space for the exchange of ideas and information, a space for creating, and a space for intellectual thought and play, you might get a library as we know it.  But most likely you won’t.  Hopefully, you’ll get something magical.  Magical spaces get designed first, then created. The creation process will eventually take place, but design first.  Design, design, design.

3.  Designing begins by crafting a contemporary vision of learning.  Form follows function.  Spaces support learning, so you need to know what types of learning you want your students engaged in.  And remember, there is a difference between mission and vision.  A mission is the fundamental essence of your organization and why you exist.  If you are an educator, and are in a school, I’ll say that your mission is to develop learners.  It’s that simple, and we all share it-it’s no secret. The vision is a current interpretation of that mission, it’s flexible, it reflects current climate and it evolves.  The mission of my school when I started teaching in 1986 was to develop learners, however the vision of how that occurred was much different than today.  Computers had not yet made their way to classrooms, there was No Child Left Behind, and there were other differences that influenced how the mission was executed at that particular time.

4.  Involve all stakeholders.  Crafting a vision should mean that it’s shared, and shared means involvement of all stakeholders, most importantly, students.  It’s their building.  Involve them.  Involve all representative groups from your community-that only makes sense-a school should be a reflection of its community and its values.

5.  Conduct a learning space inventory of your existing school.  Inventory your current spaces to assess their capability to support the learning identified by the new vision.  For example, can your current spaces effectively support collaboration?  What exactly is that 800-square foot cinder block room capable of supporting?  Doing this establishes your current reality, and, most likely, the inability of your current spaces to support your new vision.  Your space limitations become visible. Doing this is an eye opener and it can be the first step in developing momentum to design something new.  The realization that rebuilding the same thing just won’t cut it emerges.

So those are my first five.

More later.

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