Inertia and tradition can be the barriers that prevent schools and districts from beginning the essential work around learning space design. Change isn’t a natural state of being for school, education or humanity, but it is in change that we grow. As we attempt to modernize the ways teaching and learning happens, we hope that The Space: A Guide for Leaders is the playbook that you need to push through the objections and entropy around having a bias toward action. For more on where to start, read part two of this series here, and if you are looking for the right language to share with your community about why now is the right time for conversations about space design, check out part one here.
There are three big objections that can develop as a leader or design team brings their findings to a larger audience. They include questions about the available budget for this work, whether space design should be a higher priority than other important areas of change, and if space design optimization is truly a benefit for all students. Each of these questions are important to consider.
One of the most common objections around making the intentional design of spaces a top priority has to do with the budget necessary to make it happen. Many will say that there are students and families that don’t have food, so how could we possibly change the furniture before all are fed. Some will say there is a need for more staffing to take care of our students academically, so how could we possibly add to the design of the office, hallway or the library. This is not a binary decision. Improving the quality of the learning environment attracts high quality teachers, volunteers and donations. Great spaces also care for kids, and they can actually free up money when it comes to maintenance. Though not a free priority, there are many ways to begin to build momentum with low cost items and decisions that can make initial changes without utilizing an already stretched budget.
Leading change and prioritizing new things most often brings the objection that other things are more urgent. This happens when lifting intentional space design to a higher level of priority as well because some will claim that the school needs to first work on their instructional models. They are trying to become more project based or more constructivist in nature before designing their spaces. Others may say that they are working on revising the curriculum, and that once they are completed, then they can design to fit that curriculum. The truth is that design work isn’t sequential in nature, but it must run in parallel. If we wait for one thing to be completed before attempting the next, the first will be out of date before we ever get through the sequential list.
We can work on growing the student independence in learning while we are designing the space to support that work, and we can create spaces that leverage technology so that high-tech and low-tech are being optimized at the same time. Schools and districts will always have urgent, pressing issues, but well-designed spaces reduce the burden of every area of transformation to modern learning.
With any new initiative, many will point to the fact that some iteration of that work failed in the past. It is true that some efforts at learning space design haven’t yielded results, but this is often due to the process or not following the research as opposed to the power of the priority. As designers, we are asked about decorated, noisy and busy spaces. How are these actually helping learning? The work that we are outlining in The Space: A Guide for Leaders isn’t an exercise in decoration, it is research-based design. The learning science is clear and the research is growing that when spaces are well designed students feel cared for, less stressed, more joyful, and have a greater ability to be creative in their work. This design is also not about flexible seating and yoga balls though seating options and student choice have a place in the overall design of learning spaces. Intentional design is much more comprehensive as it includes considering what is on the walls, the space needed for teachers, design space for students to collaborate, and finding areas for students to reflect, process, pause and have a quiet moment.
Objections are a natural part of a change cycle. Some of the questions raised can promote a deeper common understanding of purpose throughout the organization while others are intended to stall out fresh ideas. Either way, leaders should be prepared to provide answers that speak to both the head and the heart. Change is an emotional endeavor as well. Intentional space design has the opportunity to not be something only available to those that have time and budget, but all students, all teachers, and all schools. The best designs support teachers in a deep way by enabling their mission to support each of their students. All students deserve to work in beautiful spaces that are designed to be culturally responsive for their personal needs.