Saturday, February 19, 2011

Redesigning Learning Environments

I work in a place where professional development is taken very seriously. Teachers are encouraged to seek out opportunities for growth and are almost always supported in their own endeavors, whether it be in terms of time away from school, in-school training or funding for a trip. I have found that in international schools in Asia, educators are constantly considering the 21st century learning landscape. Most teachers I meet in this region want to embrace and promote the ideas of a new educational framework, constantly feeling inspired by people like Stephen Heppell, Marco Tores and Ken Robinson. We've been told that Schools Kill Creativity and Shift Happens (even in education) and we need to Pay Attention. We’ve also aligned our motives and intentions with the ideas and direction found in clips like the 21st Century Pedagogy, Changing Educational Paradigms and Learn to Change, Change to Learn. If you haven't seen these clips, I recommend watching them, not only because they're great, but also they will give you a feel for where the rest of this post is coming from.

While these videos abound at professional development workshops and training sessions making educators oooh and ahhh in support of their revolutionary ideas, educators often don’t feel very empowered to initiate change, let alone even jump on board when we see changes happening in our own schools. Too often we are left frustrated by these ideas because, while we agree with them and believe in their message, we just can’t put them into practice within the settings where we teach. We commit ourselves to what we strongly value and what we think should be possible, only to find ourselves feeling like were stuck at a dead end because we can’t put it into practice in our very own classrooms. It’s not only frustrating; it’s also demoralizing and inhibitive.

So I’ve started to think about what it means to be a teacher with a vibrantly new outlook on education, while still stuck in a traditionally walled, desked, chaired, poster-boarded, cubic classroom.

Recently I visited the Google HeadQuarters in Mountain View, California. Having not done any homework (and not knowing anyone else's personal account) on which to build expectations about the company’s facility structure and design, I was pretty blown-away by what I encountered and discovered.

Everything you need is provided - free full-service cafeterias, coffee bars, snack stations, laundry service, shoe repair, exercise facilities, interest classes, social outlets, sports facilities, fully stocked bathrooms, etc. You could live here, easily.
Everything is inspiring and fun - boldly colourful, quirky and innovative, strangely unusual and awesomely interactive stuff is everywhere.
Everything is open and comfortable - open cubicles adorned with comfort items, windowed and/or open project and resource rooms which let you see what people are doing. the campus is open to public visitors, created a feeling of transparency and trust.
Everything is connected - staff on-site can connect with each other through an internal network, allowing them to see who is available and who is working on what projects
Everything is accessible – Google bikes are scattered around the campus to allow anyone to grab one to scoot to where they need to be.
Everything is realistic – people at Google are really productive. they're working hard and collaborating on projects, designs, innovations, etc. this is a place that tugs at your sense of work vs. home vs. life vs. school.

So recently I keep coming back to this question...
What would happen if schools were modeled after Google HQ?

What would happen if there weren't classes to attend, rather just things to try and stuff to learn. Project-based learning, spanning across age-levels but specified to student interest and, most importantly, applied to real life? Places, not rooms, where research happens, experimentation is rampant and innovations are encouraged and supported by both students and teachers.

What would happen if the only test in school was, "does it work?' or "did it achieve y/our purpose?" leading into "how can we make it better?" and "what would happen if....?"

What would happen if kids were able to hang-out with and learn from the teachers and other students - the ones with whom they connect really well and share common interests with? Would this change their learning?

Giving people, even very young people, a sense of choice instills accountability for their own decisions, encouraging them to mature and allowing them to believe in themselves. It promotes confidence and reliability. It requires a grandiose amount of trust. Many of the small jobs and tasks that schools outsource, can actually be done by learners themselves and often in a more authentic and meaningful way. Which leads me to think even further away from my classroom box and I start to imagine...

What would happen if students and teachers collectively run the entire show? Design the curriculum? Paint the walls? Plan the field trips? Cook the food? Balance the budget? Manage the schedule? Clean the bathrooms? Hire the teachers? Decide what's important? Pay the bills? It could happen...

I was first inspired by reform in educational spaces design by a man named Stephen Heppell who spoke at the Apple Leadership Summit in Hong Kong (2009) hosted by my school, CDNIS. Stephen talked about redesigning the new landscape of education. At the time, I took in his ideas as nice little added extras and not much more. I was not overly impressed because what I saw/heard seemed like basically interior design decorating ideas. I thought to myself, ‘Sure… lovely… wouldn’t it be great if we could model creative/fun learning environments to inspire teachers and learners? Let's give everybody comfort and accessibility while they’re learning! Awesome. It would be nice… but can't be the main focus. What really matters is getting people to change their pedagogy and their philosophy. Physical spaces do not play a key role in this and should probably only be considered only once changes in thinking and practice have been adopted by people at the school.” At the time, I also became a bit hung-up on the idea that only very rich schools would ever be able to afford such added cushy benefits and bonuses of Heppell's 21st century designed learning spaces.

Now, after my visit to Google HQ, I see the errors in my thinking and prioritizing. What if learning spaces design is the fundamental key to promoting changes to our current models of education? I wonder if the traditional learning environments (that we are trying to create fundamental changes within) simply can’t support such changes. Maybe the design of the physical space is the critical component (to a mixture that requires a multitude of interactive parts, of course)… or let's say, not an element on its own, but rather a catalyst, one that will encourage and facilitate authentic educational reform. Maybe 21st century learning just can't happen in 20th century classrooms and school buildings. What if  the setting is where changes need to begin?

"Now we're looking at a whole different range of schools. We're looking at a schools that produce ingenious, collaborative, gregarious, brave children... who care about stuff, like their culture. And to build schools like that is a whole nuther challenge. And around the world, you know, people are testing the ingredients about what makes that work. And those ingredients are being assembled into some just stunning recipes in different places. It's a very exciting time for learning. It's the death of education, but the dawn of learning." - Stephen Heppell

Notes & Resources

The Best Question in the World, What Would Happen If…

About Stephen Heppell
Stephen pioneered, and was the guiding "father" of, early social networking with seminal projects including *ESW in the 1980s, Schools OnLine for the UK Department of Trade and Industry in 1995/6, Tesco Schoolnet 2000 from 1999 - the then Guinness Book of Record's largest internet learning project in the world. with Oracle from 1999, Talking Heads linking every UK headteacher into a community of practice
Stephen lobbied for the creation of (in 1997) and then created in 1998, guiding for ten years, at the time a uniquely effective project to re-engage children excluded from school by behaviour or circumstances.
In recognition of all this work, along with just 51 others including Damien Hirst, Jarvis Cocker, Harrison Ford, Lauren Bacall, Muhammad Ali; Stephen became an Apple Master in the 1990s.
Stephen is at the heart of a global revolution in learning space design, with a string of major new building projects worldwide including a 0-21+ academy in the UK and a complete makeover of a national education system in the Caribbean.
From -

About the Google Head Quarters
Google is infamous in the industry for treating its employees to not just free drinks and snacks on tap, but full-on gourmet meals, three times a day at a plethora of on-site cafes and eateries, as well as regular BBQs during the summer. Brin and Page have been quoted in the past as saying no Googler should have to go more than 100 feet for food, leading to snack-filled “microkitchens” that are liberally dotted around the Google offices.
From -

Our corporate headquarters, fondly nicknamed the Googleplex, is located in Mountain View, California. Today it’s one of our many offices around the globe. While our offices are not identical, they tend to share some essential elements. Here are a few things you might see in a Google workspace:
  • Local expressions of each location, from a mural in Buenos Aires to ski gondolas in Zurich, showcasing each office’s region and personality.
  • Bicycles or scooters for efficient travel between meetings; dogs; lava lamps; massage chairs; large inflatable balls.
  • Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and huddle rooms – and very few solo offices.
  • Laptops everywhere – standard issue for mobile coding, email on the go and note-taking.
  • Foosball, pool tables, volleyball courts, assorted video games, pianos, ping pong tables, and gyms that offer yoga and dance classes.
  • Grassroots employee groups for all interests, like meditation, film, wine tasting and salsa dancing.
  • Healthy lunches and dinners for all staff at a variety of caf├ęs.
  • Break rooms packed with a variety of snacks and drinks to keep Googlers going.
From -
Life at the Googleplex

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