Competing forces tug on all aspects of teaching and learning. These forces can create a whipsaw effect on teachers and leaders as they try to provide the best possible mix of learning for all students on a daily basis. These forces, both internal and external, create an ever moving target about what priorities matter and make it almost impossible to implement anything with fidelity. Schools looking to avoid this should focus deeply on ongoing, thoughtful evolution of practices around three areas: what students learning (curriculum), how students learning (instruction), and where students learn (environments)
Having all change flow from one of these three priorities creates a manageable framework for growth without the whipsaw effect that is occurring in many schools and districts. Most schools recognize the research around high quality curriculum and instruction, and they spend large amounts of professional learning in these areas, but it has been only recently with the emergence of new research has a greater emphasis been made on where students learn.
There are no neutral spaces in our lives. There are spaces that bring us joy. There are spaces that prime our brains for thinking and conversations. There are spaces that inspire, but there are also spaces that suck energy from us and spaces that fail to engage the inherent human desire for curiosity and wonder. It is only when we are intentional about our design that we can truly optimize the parts of the world around us that we can control. When schools and districts make space and learning environments a priority, they are priming the system for excellence. There are four initial areas that should be central to all design conversations when it comes to space.
- Welcoming- Have you ever entered a space and felt like you weren’t wanted? This is a feeling that many students experience from the time that they enter a school building. Signage, color and images can all shape this experience. For other students, they have a tradition of not enjoying school and each step into a classroom is a reminder about the past. Reshaping the design can break this cycle.
- Belonging- Do you see yourself in the learning environment? Learning environments have traditionally been built without great details to whether they are culturally responsive, and when they are, they rarely have the adaptability to shift with the community. If students and teachers feel as though they are entering a space where they can’t see themselves and have no semblance of their environment beyond school, then the space is working against itself from the beginning.
- Stress/Anxiety- All learning spaces should reduce student stress. Formal learning is often stressful for students. They are processing information, handling social situations, completing school work and trying to showcase their learning on assessments. This stress at the right level can bring out the best in our students, but learning environments without intentional design can stress our students in ways that negatively impact learning and social interaction. It is essential to find where the environmental stressors are for the building and work to mitigate them.
- Agency/Choice- Co-design and ongoing feedback loops are essential to effective spaces. When learners and facilitators of learning have a voice in crafting both the macro and micro of a space, there is greater ownership, comfort and control. All of these elements allow individuals to be optimized in their performance. Choice for students doesn’t mean that they get to control all aspects of where they learn, but it means that they are a meaningful part of the conversation throughout the learning journey.
In part two, we will discuss some additional benefits of intentional design and thinking about where students learn.