Invite Student Curiosity with Inspiring Spaces
This is an excerpt from the fifth chapter of More Now: A Message From The Future for The Educators of Today by Mark Wagner, Ph.D., our founder and CEO. These philosophies have inspired his work, and ours at EdTechTeam, for years. Get your copy today.
Inspiring Spaces are comfortable, beautiful, and flexible environments that invite students to learn by engaging their curiosity, wonder, and natural physical energy.
At American School of Bombay elementary campus in Mumbai, you won’t hear a bell to signal lunch time. In fact, there is no “bell schedule.” Break times happen when the teachers notice that their students are low on energy or are getting squirrely and need to run around a bit. If lunchtime rolls around and everyone is deep into their projects, the class stays in flow and keeps working. Like the schedule, the physical learning space in this school is flexible. Rather than being composed of a bunch of small classrooms, the elementary space is large and open. Teachers and students have the freedom to rearrange partitions, bookcases, and the rest of the furniture (all of which is on wheels) as needed. Learning spaces in the upper grades are just as creative and flexible, meeting the needs of students as they work, learn, and play together. It’s a school that encourages students to “Dream. Learn. Serve.” Everything about the building supports that endeavor. To get a glimpse of what that looks like in action, watch the video at asbindia.org.
’Iolani School in Hawaii is another example of a school where the environment contributes to a culture of connected, student-driven learning. With a garden on the rooftop and a makerspace in the basement, the school’s dedicated learning center is a place where students are inspired to create and innovate. In the previous chapter, I wrote about a few of the things students can learn from video games. Well, at ’Iolani, the students rigged up a bicycle to create electricity that powers a video-game system—combining physical activity with games and engineering. Every quarter, students redecorate the elevator. The first time I took a ride in it, the theme was Yellow Submarine. There was a lighting system, a sound system, and motorized 3D printed plastic cutouts—all programmed by students to enhance The Beatles theme. A few quarters later, I visited again, and the theme was Frank Sinatra. (Clearly, music is part of this school’s culture!) Check out what’s going at this impressive school at iolani.org.
Learning spaces should reflect the culture you want in your classroom or school. If you want kids sitting in rows listening to lectures, then the traditional spaces are arguably effective. But if you want to take a different approach to learning, the spaces in your school need to look different from a traditional classroom. They should be comfortable, beautiful, and flexible enough to meet the needs of your learners while inspiring them to explore their passions and use their curiosity, wonder, and physical energy. The typical classroom is none of those things. It’s not comfortable; students sit in metal chairs with weird wooden desks in front of them. Unless the teacher has gone to great effort, the classrooms are not beautiful—most schools look like brick boxes. The traditional industrial, uncomfortable metal furniture doesn’t add to the beauty, nor is it flexible. Typically, teachers organize students in rows and lecture to them from the front of the room. But if you are able to do something that purposely breaks from those conventions, you can create an environment that kids want to learn in. That changes everything. As Loris Malaguzzi writes in The Third Teacher, “There are three teachers of our children: adults, other children, and their physical environment.”
Whether redesigning an entire school or a single classroom, creating a makerspace, or developing a multipurpose library space, when school leaders and educators think of purchasing new furniture or redesigning learning spaces, the focus is generally on making improvements to what the school is already doing. Any progress toward spaces that are more comfortable, beautiful, and flexible is a step in the right direction, but that kind of focus may not be enough—because what traditional schools are doing now isn’t enough to equip students with the kinds of technical, innovative, and, in particular, the collaborative and interpersonal skills they will need in the future. If learning can happen anywhere, then, as David Jakes points out, “School is just a single space in a larger place of learning.” Free access to information has significantly changed learning—both in how we learn and the skills and knowledge we need to acquire—so it only make sense that our learning spaces should change as well. Our goal must be to design schools and classrooms that promote learning and connection—spaces that allow for collaboration, for reflection, for discovery, and for creation.
One of the most common complaints students have concerning their learning spaces is that they are physically uncomfortable. “Once you get over the hump of making them comfortable, then you have a fighting chance of teaching them something,” David Jakes says.
“Where do you learn best?” Rebecca Hare, a teacher, design consultant, and coauthor of The Space, asks this question every time she does a workshop for teachers. “Most teachers respond that they work in the kitchen on a stool with a big surface area. A lot of teachers sit on the couch with a pillow on their lap, their laptop on top of it. There are very few teachers who actually go and sit at a desk at home to do their work.”
We all learn best when we’re comfortable—when our backs don’t hurt and our legs aren’t cramped and we have plenty of space for our book or tablet or laptop or paper. Why then do schools confine students to small, cramped desks with hard seats and very little room to write, create, or use a Chromebook or iPad? “It’s like a little prison,” Hare says. “Creating more comfortable environments that mimic the way we sit and move when we are learning independently can help spark that kind of natural learning in our kids during the school day.”
Comfortable learning spaces might have exercise balls or standing desks or bean bags or pillows or couches. What they won’t have are rows and rows of small, isolating, and uncomfortable desks.
What can you do to make your learning spaces more comfortable?
Beautiful, interesting, and creative spaces invite students to learn. At Singapore American School, Ron Starker, a librarian and the author of Transforming Libraries, creates homey spaces with comfort and functionality built in. He and his team created archetypal learning environments, drawing from David Thornberg’s Campfires in Cyberspace to improve the learning experience in the library:
The Campfire—Couches and chairs are arranged for group discussions.
The Watering Hole—An informal gathering space where people can snack and share ideas.
The Cave—A quiet space where students can work in solitude.
The Mountaintop—Designed to accommodate large audiences, this space is equipped with sound, lighting, and a projection system.
Additionally, the Singapore American School’s library includes spaces such as the Living Room that brings in elements of nature (including plants and a large tiger representing the school’s mascot). It also has a recording studio, reading room, design center, photography studio, wellness zone, and a place for solitude called pier point equipped with pod chairs that cut down on distractions.
Beautiful spaces engage the mind as well as the body. Not unlike a Google office with bikes and nap pods, we can design learning spaces that take into account that students—humans—are not little central processing units. Putting kids in a grove in the woods (even if the “woods” are in your classroom) lets them learn in an environment more conducive to reflection and creativity. (Explore the Japanese concept of forest bathing for more of the psychological and physiological benefits of being in the woods.).
When spaces are designed with purpose, they can be both beautiful and functional. In classrooms, beauty could mean adding “Easter eggs”—fun finds for students, including questions, prompts, or interesting quotes on the walls. In my son’s fourth-grade classroom, the teacher has an easel just outside the room where she posts interesting facts and images designed to engage students’ natural curiosity and wonder before they even come into the class.
What can you do to add beauty to your learning spaces?
If you go to a nice hotel or a modern airport, you’ll see flexible and varied spaces. You can sit in the lounge chair and rest or read. If you want to work, you sit or stand at a high table while charging your device. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. There are play areas for families so young children can stop and unleash pent-up energy, and there are cozy spots for sitting and talking. The same should be true of schools because flexible, varied spaces in schools contribute to better learning.
Flexible is a broad term that encompasses the idea that our learning spaces—and everything in them—must respond to different needs of those using them.
- Do we need a full-group space?
- Do we need to be able to break out into small teams?
- Do we need to be able to pair up?
- Do we need to be able to move all this stuff out of the way so that we can use our bodies and move in this space?
Those are all elements of flexibility.
Some of my favorite examples of flexible learning spaces are schools where all the furniture is on wheels: chairs, tables, bookshelves, screens, SmartBoards, projectors—everything. Sometimes even the walls have wheels. In these flexible open-concept schools, teachers can create learning spaces as needed.
Flexibility can also refer to the tech capabilities in the space. Do you have one big screen at the front of the room, or smaller screens that kids can plug into? Maybe you just use a Chromecast that allows everybody to take turns up front. Something as simple as a forty-dollar Chromecast can add flexibility to the learning environment.
And just like the space should reflect the culture, the culture impacts the way we teach, learn, and use the space. “I run creative spaces and makerspaces and my students have total autonomy within those spaces,” Rebecca Hare says. “They learn where the tools are and how to use them. So I’m not obsessed with flexible seating because the kids are the flexible elements in my space. If they have to use a laser cutter, they go over to the laser cutter. If they need to use the sinks or work on the floor . . . wherever they need to work they have the freedom to move and use the space in a way that best suits them.”
What can you do to make your learning spaces flexible enough to meet your learners’ needs?
Mark Wagner is a former high school English teacher that has since served as educational technology coordinator at the site, district, and county levels. He is now President and CEO of the EdTechTeam, a global network of educational technologists that provide professional development and consulting services to learning institutions, nonprofits, and for-profit education companies. The EdTechTeam is a California Benefit Corporation with a mission to improve the world’s education systems using the best technology and pedagogy available and aims to inspire and empower other educators to do the same. Wagner earned a Ph.D. in Educational Technology with doctoral research focused on video game use in education, specifically massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) as constructive learning environments. He also holds a master’s degree in cross-cultural education. Outside of work, Wagner plays hockey, practices martial arts, and obsesses over his ’62 Beetle. He enjoys songwriting, nature, and exploring the world. He lives in Irvine, California with his wife, Eva, and boys, Clark and Finn. Naturally, he’s a U2 fan.