Digital land knows no boundaries of space, time, or geography. The effect on learning in the past three years, in particular, has been profound, though not necessarily on learning in schools. More have arguably expanded their horizons through 20 minutes of TED Talks than 20 minutes of most chalk and talks or classroom activities.
Apply the principles of digital development to physical learning spaces, though, and we can imagine a totally different means of designing and constructing new schools, where the physical space takes on a role as vital as the technology itself in pushing on teaching and learning practice in schools by leaps and bounds.The moment for this type of thinking is ripe. It is now.
At the end of September I spent a weekend as one of a very few educators amongst a sea of school planners, architects and district managers responsible for leading the development of learning spaces of the strictly offline variety at the annual world conference of CEFPI.
We worked at turning most learning design conversations from “Let us deliver you a great building” to “Let us work together to change the way we teach and learn in this place, with the building as one of its many foundations.” So what are the physical features of our learning spaces that might work?
The Seven Spaces
Matt Locke kicked off with six spaces of digital media that provided a framework for thinking about the media without having to refer to brands (it helps avoid what I call “The Hoover of the Internet” problem when we hear people talking about Facebook, when they really mean social networks. Last year, I added a seventh: data spaces.
When we look at the digital media we interact with, with whom we interact in each space and what that looks like in a physical environment, we start to see that these seven spaces provide a fresh format for asking teachers, parents, students and others what they would like to do in a new building, and then design a flow between the right mix of spaces for the projects they will undertake.
Examples: Text message, Instant Messaging
Think about how you sit when you’re texting someone. Go on, text someone now and get someone to photograph you. Now stand up, go for a quick walk around the room, and start looking up a webpage on your mobile phone. Get another photo taken. What do you see? When we’re engaged in secret spaces (sending text messages to one other person), as opposed to public publishing spaces (like a webpage or even sending a ‘text’ to our hundreds of Twitter followers) our body language is totally different.Therefore the consideration of physical space has to be made. In schools, where are the niche-ing private, secret spaces where we can curl up to text, read a book, perhaps read material that we wouldn’t want our peers to see us read (thick books when our friends think it’s uncool to read ‘proper’ books, sex education materials and advice books or websites)? Privacy is hugely important to teens in particular, more than adults tend to comprehend. Maybe we need to think about temporary secret spaces, like the inflatable igloos of Glasgow’s Saltire Centre?
Examples: Facebook, MySpace, etc.
Digital group spaces work because they’re engaged around one thing, and one thing only: How can we help people to find their friends and engage with them in sharing and conversation?
Groups spaces are highly malleable, much in the same way as we’d like our physical spaces to be: changeable, on the whim of its project-based, student-led occupants’ ideas, to be a nest-like room for one project, and a pirate ship the next. The Nest Room at Wieden+Kennedy’s office, with its stone-like comfortable sofas: schools could create rooms like this on a whim, to suit the project students have chosen to undertake at any given point.
Again, in school, it seems like most spaces, indoors and out, are geared up to making this virtual “gathering around the fireside” hard or impossible to achieve. Whether it’s the distinct lack of outdoors seating areas that, if they’re there, are set to face at opposing angles (and thus de-facilitate conversation) or desk and seating arrangements contrived to make us all face one way, or meet considerable pain in trying to shift things around, or even down to the de facto reasoning given for having 25-year walls separating our classroom spaces, school spaces are generally designed to stop people collaborating or talking to each other.
The d.school at Stanford is one place, though, that realises less is more when trying to harness the existing groups and communities in our schools – leave the space as wide open as possible and provide the furniture, objects, lighting or movable, hanging walls that are required on the side, and on wheels.
Want a wall? Take one. Need to gather folk around? Bring your own seat. Want a ‘secret’ space in which you can hide a bit? Make one. Need more whiteboard? Paint some. The Glasgow Saltire Centre continues this idea with its on-wheels moveable Palm Tree lighting, moveable inflatable igloos and little niches.
Examples: Flickr, Youtube, Revver, etc
Online, when we publish a blog post like this or put up a photo on Flickr, we’re hoping that people might find it. In schools’ physical spaces, this for me is about how digital artefacts of learning can be shared through the building space, much like in the video above where Tweets from within a building are broadcast to its shell and viewed through mobile phones.
Examples: MMORPGs, Sports, Drama
Performing spaces allow people to be someone or something they are not. In World of Warcraft you can be grouping with hundreds of other warriors to win battles of epic proportions, while by day you’re a computing science teacher.
In buildings, these performing spaces are traditionally seen as epic concert halls. Stanford’s latest addition in the Bing Hall is one such epic extension to the learning environment. But these tend to be reserved for those who are not performing in a way that allows them to be something they are not – these spaces are about encouraging and showcasing those who have already worked out that they can be what they dreamed of being.
I wonder what the opportunity is for transforming learning spaces into temporary universes where we can immerse ourselves in a “imagine if” environment. It could be the nest room example, above, or it might be trying to offer buildings that enhance what great languages teachers, for example, have always done – create a feeling of entering into a parallel, slightly exotic French, German, Spanish or Chinese environment.
Maybe it’s about turning school buildings into more of a game, especially for those who are new to them. I wonder what inspiration could fill a school build by drawing on the father who, when refitting his Manhattan pad, placed scores of quizzes, nooks, crannies and secret spaces within it for his daughters to discover their new home.
Examples: Meetup, Threadless, CambrianHouse.com, MySociety
In school buildings, what might these participation spaces look like? It might be in providing relentless data points where current energy consumption and production of the school can be monitored and added to or acted upon by any student. So far, some schools such as Gullane in East Lothian have got as far as showing the data of their energy consumption and production, but few if any have gone as far as creating a participation space where the community can actually use that data to change their actions or realise the impact of existing actions on the environment through their participation.
Examples: Television, Cinema, Sports, Theatre, etc
Finally, watching spaces. These are the ones schools are probably most geared up to at the moment. However, if we change everything about the school from the norm being the front of the classroom to the norm being having no ‘front’ in the classroom, then we have a wonderful opportunity to really celebrate the great lecture for what it is. TED Talks have proven the global appetite for superb, but short, lectures. And yes, even youngsters are blown away by the performance of an amazing speaker.
By making the norm in schools one of collaboration and teacher as a guide, “tilting towards completion” to quote Gever Tulley, then we can afford to create genial spaces for lectures, spaces that thrill and delight and celebrate those occasional moments of lone insight that only a real, living, flesh and blood teacher or visitor or student could ever offer.
Changing our approach to building school spaces in this way isn’t easy, and it’s a real chicken and egg as to “what comes first”. The fact is, we need to consider building our bricks and building our curriculum at the same time. We need to be constructing learning walls with our teacher and student peers, but also with our architects and builders. We need to be looking at how our timetables can move from 45-minute, 90-minute or 2-hour chunks into something more akin to the flow we have when in the midst of a longer project (or blog post .
Want to discuss this more? Have a read of The Third Teacher, and visit my friends at Cannon Design, Bassetti, the Academy for Global Citizenship (started aged 23 by the amazing Sarah Elizabeth Ippel) or my own delicious links on building schools.