Sunday, September 6, 2015

Design Empowers Learning

All one has to do is look around and see the amazing changes that are taking place in workspaces across the world.  I have always been enamored with what Google and Pixar have done to improve working conditions for their employees.  An article from Hongkiat provides some insight on why these changes have been made:
"Thanks to corporate giants like Google and Pixar that have demonstrated tremendous success despite their unconventional workplaces, more people are embracing the idea that creative work environment helps stimulate minds and inspire innovation. From simply ditching the crisp white walls for graphical wallpapers to a total overhaul of the office layout, we are all trying to break the mold and introduce a unique working environment to the team, and hopefully inspire some genius ideas along the way."
Make sure you check out some of the other amazing designs that are featured in that Honkiat post. What we are seeing are some exciting changes by organizations. To get better results they incorporate elements that foster creativity, collaboration, flexibility, and communication. This is not only a great concept that has become a reality in the real world, but it also makes sense.  Who wants to go to a job all day and sit in a hard chair at a desk in a suffocating cubicle while being rained on by effervescing light? Not my idea of a perfect job and I bet many of you reading this post feel that same way.  As expectations related to producing better outcomes change, businesses have capitalized on a design trend that has led to improved results.

Now with all this being said let’s take a look at our schools.  What does a school look like? Well a school silly. This was not a trick question, but a stark reminder of an issue that really needs more attention.  Do kids really want to sit at uncomfortable desks aligned in rows with loads of artificial light? If you think so then I challenge you do take the place of one of your students not just for a day, but an entire week.  Sit in that uncomfortable chair until your back and neck are killing you and then ask yourself why we do this to kids. Design issues extend well beyond that of classroom. The internal structure of most schools does very little to reflect real-world skill sets and expectations. 

Things need to change if we are serious about student learning and emerging research supports this. The Huffington Post summarizes a study by Barrett et. al (2012)
"The yearlong study by the University of Salford's School of the Built Environment and British architecture firm Nightingale Associates examined 751 students in 34 classrooms across seven primary schools for the 2011-2012 academic year. Students were assessed at the beginning and end of the year for academic performance in math, reading and writing, and classrooms were rated on environmental qualities like classroom orientation, natural light, acoustics, temperature, air quality and color. The researchers found that classroom architecture and design significantly affected academic performance: Environmental factors studied affected 73 percent of the changes in student scores."
These findings also suggested that the architecture and design of a classroom could have a 25% impact (positive of negative) on a student’s academic performance.  With this being said schools must be more proactive by putting in the time, effort, and resources to create classroom and school environments that are much more conducive to learning. When making decisions about classroom and school environment take the following into consideration:
  • Furniture
  • Lighting
  • Technology for learning
  • Temperature
  • Layout to support essential skills
  • Acoustics
  • Colors

Image credit: http://nextgenlearning.org/

For a great example of all these elements in action take a look at Clark Hall. I was fortunate to get a tour of this amazing space that was built next to the high school with former Gahanna Principal Dwight Carter. Clark Hall epitomizes the types of learning spaces that are not only possible, but also ones that will help students achieve the type of results applicable to the real world. 

Clark Hall (image credit: http://www.dispatch.com/)

Clark Hall (image credit http://www.ohm-advisors.com)

Clark Hall (image credit http://www.ohm-advisors.com)

Other districts are embracing design changes in their buildings.  As part of the Albemarle County Schools (VA) commitment to their students they have developed the Seven Pathways to Life Long Learner Competencies, which clearly emphasizes the importance of design principals and thinking.  Check out how teacher Michael Thornton is creating space for risk in that district.

How might you change the structure and function of your classrooms and buildings to better support learning? Where are areas of opportunity?

P.S.Barrett, Y. Zhang, J. Moffat and K. Kobbacy (2012). "An holistic, multi-level 
     analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils' learning."        
     Building and Environment.

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