Far too often, deeper inquiry is squeezed into assembly line learning simply because the architecture and furniture of our learning environments fail to support the process. If we improve intellectual spaces in the classroom, we can change the focus from each student submitting to a series of tasks, to instead, finding their own path of learning. The change doesn’t have to be a dramatic shift in the furniture. It can start with a clear intent for the experiences we want to create for kids. Try one or more of these shifts and see how it affects your environment.
Prompt Habits of Mind in the Classroom
What do we want students to learn and accomplish in six months, or in two or ten years? What will be the lasting impact from our learning experiences? Try choosing a few life-enhancing habits of mind to focus on. Want to build more resilient learners? Dedicate a part of the wall or a bulletin board to student reflections on perseverance as a celebration and a reminder to the whole learning community. This student quote is up in Rebecca’s room now after students were asked to reflect on a photography project:
“I have discovered that producing good pieces of art requires time and patience. Most good photographs are not produced in an instant but require time to plan and prepare, and time to edit after the picture is taken.” – Luka
In building intellectual spaces, we aren’t running away from the concepts and topics that are part of the standards learned in the classroom, rather, we are recognizing that the habits of the mind are lifelong and need daily practice. Gaining resilience, perseverance, and self-determination needs to be central to the work. Introduce the vocabulary of the habits you most want to support your youngest learners. Ask all students to self-reflect on their progress and share their work.
How to Get Students to Think Harder
“Sticky learning” comes from those times when our brains hurt. How often are we creating scenarios that allow for all students to have an opportunity to think harder? How often are we forgetting to take off the training wheels? Rather than giving students scaffolded projects, try giving groups a large piece of paper, a calendar, and a simple goal. Let them work backwards from the goal by deciding what needs to be achieved, who should do it, and how much time they think it will take. Be their consultant and guide, but don’t do the heavy lifting for them.
See the Big Picture
How does all the learning connect and overlap? It takes time to see how systems connect across learning experiences. Stop placing the learning in the drawer once the unit (quarter or semester) is complete and instead, use a wall or a shared digital space like Prezi.com to connect big ideas across the curriculum. Be sure to add to it or make adjustments as you go with the students. Have students write down the key points and big ideas and then ask, “Where does this fit?” Encourage conversations and debate how to visualize how the information connects.
Build a Culture of Student Exploration
If you are generating all of the questions in the classroom, you can inadvertently mute the inquiry-based student mindset. Most of the questions that truly spark great learning don’t have an answer in a search engine. Try creating a question box that is filled with the natural curiosity of your students. These can be pulled out one at a time for a whole group quest or divided up in smaller groups. Show students that their questions are just as important as those generated by our curriculum designers and that their answers, solutions, and attempts to consider and explore these ideas are worth everyone’s time.
Examine Student Progress and Success
As students grow their intellectual endurance, meet longer-term deadlines, and self-reflect on drafts, it is important to keep them anchored in thinking about their daily success as well. Beginning the class with students thinking about what success would look like for them before they walk out the door can be a way to keep momentum and energy. Try dedicating the first few moments of class, or the day, to students set goals for themselves. The last few moments of the class should be spent on reflecting on whether the student’s actions brought them closer or further away from their goals.
Push for More Raw Material
“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
― Jodi Picoult
Writers write a lot of words. Photographers take tons of pictures. Artists go through more drafts and ideas than are worth counting. Great demonstrations of learning emerge from the production of copious amounts of raw material. Make time and space for students to engage in the creative process. Start by having your students come up with 15 ideas for their thesis statements, or 10 ways to solve or present a problem. Help them push past the goal of finishing the task and engage in finding the most exciting and interesting ways to approach it.
Establish That Learning Isn’t a Linear Journey
Many classrooms model linear learning. There is a timeline, schedule, and route for all learning to travel. Intellectual spaces account for the spiraling nature of learning. Try giving students three choices on how to engage with the material and then three ways to express what they have learned. Try assessing their process rather than their product.
Break some habits you might have unintentionally formed. Try a few of these easy wins for a quick shift in your learning space.
- Cut the Clutter
- Examine the use of horizontal spaces to collect papers and other items. Too often these areas create visual clutter in the room.
- Eliminate the Front
- Find new positions in the rooms to facilitate learning. This allows a fresh perspective and new ways of supporting students.
- Focus on Hard Work
- Double down on language, both verbal and non-verbal, that supports a growth mindset. By valuing hard work and process, students see learning as a journey.
- Consider Classroom Norms
- Review with students the best ways to use spaces throughout the classroom. This helps students rethink space as a learning tool.
- Eliminate Invisible Items
- Be intentional about what remains on the walls. If posters and resources no longer support learning, they may have reached their expiration dates.
- Think Long-Term
- Clear a space for longer-term project work. Until a space is clear, it is often difficult to see the logistics of making projects like these visible.
- Value Student Feedback
- Visualize student feedback in the room by creating a suggestion box. In adding this, student voice is valued. Implement their suggestions when you can to let them know that you care.
- Celebrate Learning in Images
- Add images of students learning to the walls and digital displays. This helps to celebrate the learning process, while visually showcasing the learning behaviors in a modern classroom.
- Break the Momentum
- Make a few adjustments to the floor plan of the room (try some from your suggestion box!). Small changes break inertia and provide a fresh lens to see the possibilities of the space.
By taking a fresh look at how your space is an intellectual space in sync with implementing some physical tweaks, you can be more intentional in your practice, which is always a win for kids. Break the inertia now. Even taking the smallest step forward will begin a journey into the designer’s mindset that can bolster the success of all students.
Dr. Robert Dillon serves the students and community of the University City as Director of Innovation Learning. Prior to this position, he served as a teacher and administrator in public schools throughout the Saint Louis area. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. He has published four books. THE SPACE: A Guide for Educators, Redesigning Learning Spaces, Leading Connected Classrooms and Engage, Empower, Energize: Leading Tomorrow’s Schools Today.
Rebecca Louise Hare is a design consultant, science and design educator and co-author of The Space: A Guide for Educators.