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Learning can happen anywhere, but learning may happen better with the right classroom design. Research on learning shows that creativity and collaboration can be enhanced through the redesign of space. In Make Space: How to  Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration, Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft of Stanford University’s d.school apply research-based design principles to show how an ordinary classroom space can be turned into a flexible, creative space. You can hear an interview with the authors on the Harvard Business Review blog.

Over the last year, I’ve learned about the design of learning space by visiting several schools and organizations that have redefined how space is used. At Summit Denali in Sunnyvale, CA, students work in an open space for personalized learning as well as collaborative projects. When you walk into the room, it’s hard to find the teachers because they’re acting as facilitators and aren’t teaching from the front of the room. Students work comfortably in a variety of seating areas and have the freedom to move around as needed. This student-centered, flexible learning environment facilitates collaboration and maximizes the use of space.

Using some of what I learned on site visits, I was able to work with a team this year to create space for our new R2 Innovates innovation incubator. In the tradition of the Stanford d.school, we started with an old portable and transformed it into a space for innovation teams to collaborate and work. We purchased furniture that could easy be moved around to facilitate different types of group work and stocked the cabinets with lots of post-it notes. I worried that we purchased too many rolling whiteboards but realized quickly enough that our teams love to use the boards for brainstorming. The boards also act as movable dividers when several groups are working in the same space. Everyone who uses the space says that it inspires creativity and enables collaboration.

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Some of the most exciting R2 Innovates projects that I’ve been involved with this year have involved the creation of space for active learning. Several of our innovation teams focused on redesigning and making new space for learners. The Summit Parkway Middle School Creative Commons team redesigned space in the media center as makerspace. Now that the students have 1:1 Chromebooks, she wanted to reclaim space that was previously used for desktop computers and turn it into an area where students can create and collaborate. Library Media Specialist Jennifer Lanier collaborated with a class at the school on the design and then the students pitched their idea to the principal.  Follow their blog to see the latest updates.

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As you begin to design or redesign learning spaces, keep the following in mind:

  • Observe how people currently work in the space and interview them to find out what type of environment works best for them.
  • Work with others to brainstorm ideas for the space. Use a technique like 100 ideas in 10 minutes to get your initial list and then pick the most promising ideas.
  • Use rapid prototyping to put your idea into action. The first prototype can be very rough but will give you lots of information about next steps.
  • Refine your idea based on the reactions that you receive from the rapid prototype.
  • Implement and continue to get feedback, iterate, and scale!
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As the school year comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting back over the last few years and am reminded of the quote from “We Bought a Zoo” author, Benjamin Mee:

“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

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As an avid traveler, some of my best experiences have been those “heart in the throat” moments – scuba diving for the first time, swimming and climbing to see the ATM cave in Belize, jumping into the water with whale sharks, spending the night in a hammock in the Amazon jungle, chaperoning students to Russia and living in a Russian home, and sitting in a broken down ferry in the middle of the Red Sea.

As educators, we’ve got to have that same insane courage. Not every experience is going to turn out how we had planned, but we’ve got to be willing to take risks. I’ve invested a lot of time, thought, sleepless nights, hope, and insane courage in work that I believe is making a difference in the lives of children. Working with an outstanding team to plan and implement a 1:1 initiative and develop innovative practices has been the most professionally rewarding experience of my life. The big lessons from the last few years include:

  1. The learner comes first.
  2. Act. Nothing will ever change without those 20 seconds of insane courage. Keep your eyes on the challenge ahead and don’t stop.
  3. Great things happen with visionary leaders.
  4. Schools and districts must build their own capacity and should not rely on outside entities to direct their vision. In other words, don’t buy programs that promise the silver bullet effect. One size does not fit all.
  5. Involve all stakeholders in planning and implementing new programs.
  6. Make connections for learning and sharing. Be brave in asking for assistance. There are lots of wonderful people inside and outside of your organization who want to help (free of charge!).
  7. Support innovation within your school and district and remove the road blocks that keep teachers from trying new things.
  8. Open is better than closed. Hold your ideas lightly and listen to the advice of others.
  9. Scale innovations.

Not easy. Leading, building capacity, innovating, and scaling initiatives are hard work with many potential road blocks to success. The change must come from within your organization to be sustainable. As summer approaches, take those first steps to pitch a new idea, develop yourself professionally, or launch a new initiative. Go!

D. Teuber

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