Thinking Beyond the School Box: Inspired Architecture + Contemporary Learning

Featured

I recently visited our newest multi-age space redesign in a small rural elementary school. When we began the process to modernize this school, we knew we had to design and build new space from the inside out.  The school had some nice elements including a clerestory roof line that should have allowed natural light into classrooms but didn’t because tall storage cabinets added over the years blocked light from the classroom work areas.

In the redesign the school’s 20th century rectangular classrooms were combined to create a variety of multi-age spaces. An art room located in an older trailer and the small library were moved and integrated into a common arts and library space. The design team increased connectivity and transparency by adding doors and windows that opened up access to the school’s rural, park-like setting. The teachers in this school see the rural area, local farms, and natural environment as a learning asset. They also believe that access to fresh air and movement is key for learners to stay engaged throughout the day.

(the school’s playground view) 

The learning flexibility created by our new school-wide, multi-age spaces offers a much wider bandwidth of opportunities and potential experiences to children. We have learned from multiple research sources that natural light is a key ingredient to create environments in which learners thrive. Since the redesign, light pours into halls and learning spaces. A variety of flexible furniture, seating, and informal work areas provide learners and teachers with both choice and comfort options to locate in space differently depending upon the work that is being done. The teachers know from learning research that both spaces for quiet, independent work as well as for small and large groups to gather are critical to address the range of children’s needs, planned learning experiences, and instruction necessary to maximize learning potential across the school.

When I visited this newly redesigned school, I watched a live cam of polar bears wandering the ice pack in the Arctic on a touch screen in the library. Multi-age learners gathered in informal hall spaces to work together on projects. Students oriented themselves at tables and on the floor to write in a 3,4,5 space  —  some choosing more traditional seating while others, as some teachers label it, engaged in “belly-writing.”

It’s not easy to make changes from physical teaching places to child-centered learning spaces. It’s even harder to shift practices, values, and beliefs associated with teaching age-based classes to those essential to creating viable, multi-age learning experiences. It takes time for teachers who have “owned” a room to learn how to share space, plan, and teach together.

Sharing space in concept is different than sharing in reality — for adult and young learners. Seeing children through a developmental lens in multi-age spaces challenges the way we’ve learned to use learning standards, benchmarks, and expectations in single-age classrooms. What does “on level” really mean? How do we teach grade-level math standards in a multi-age class? What do we notice about social-emotional learning development that’s different in a group of children ranging in age from eight to ten versus a class with all ten year olds?

Negotiating curricula, assessment, and pedagogy isn’t easy when you begin to work in a co-teaching team. Compromise, collaboration, and negotiation skills become critical to moving through the forming to storming to norming to performing phases of the team’s work. The dysfunctions of working in isolation become more apparent in teams than in the traditional structures and schedules of schools. That’s one reason why time to build relationships, plan, and reflect together is key to the process of developing a strong and effective team.

From prior shifts in redesigning spaces in our schools, we know that change is an iterative process with both growing pains and gains. I see it every time we go through the process. Are there strategies that increase the likelihood of success? Yes — here’s what I notice.

  • The ideal and real life of change are quite different. Accept that every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.
  • The first step is visualizing big possibilities and then moving towards that vision in stages. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We must accept that deep change in school processes and practices doesn’t happen overnight.
  • Physical space redesign doesn’t force change but it can make it easier to shift to contemporary practices. More than anything, it’s the time adults devote to working together to design, plan, experiment, and reflect that results in change. You can’t undervalue investing the funds for the time teams need to build relationships and plan ahead. Space matters. Resources matter. People matter the most. Invest in their time.
  • Care, support, and empathy are essential to working with educators embarked on making radical change. We say that kids need to feel emotional comfort when they take on learning challenges. The same is true of adults.
  • Every time that we take a risk, it may lead to either success or failure. Celebrate success but avoid punishing failure. Many years ago a leader said to me when I took a risk and failed, “rather than beating yourself up, let this be a learning experience —  and consider what you would do differently next time. The failure to do that would be the real failure for you in this.” Be present as a leader with your team when you are taking them into the waters of deep change.  Leadership matters.

Finally, I’ve learned over time that children know everything we adults need to be wise in our work together. The children in this small rural elementary school recently offered words of wisdom to their peers and their teachers. Practice words of wisdom with the adults in your team and not just with the children you serve.

And remember, the sun always shines after a storm.

Makers By Design

Featured

When a principal wanders into my office during the middle of state testing and just a week or so away from the end of the year, I am realistic in not expecting the same charged enthusiasm I heard earlier in the year. After all, I’ve been there. The end of a school year can sap a principal’s energy as s/he engages in a faster than typical urgency to make decisions and take action. Principals spend the end of the year in both start up and wind down mode – hiring new teachers, taking part in celebrations, often dealing with increased discipline issues and last minute parental concerns while pitching in with anything that needs to get done to bring a school year to closure. In May, the pace can suck the life out of a principal.

This week I ended my Friday chatting with a principal who brought a fresh energy into my office, delighting me with his affirmation that working in an at-risk school is his life’s work. I’ve always known that about him but his perspective was different yesterday. Why? The school staff has imagined and embraced a change that he believes has energized children, brought families closer to the school, and catalyzed  a renewed joy of teaching among staff. I’d love to be able to bottle his perspective and share it with America’s educators. But, I don’t need to. This school’s secret is encapsulated in one word.

MAKE.   Make not as an add on to the “real” work. Make as integral work. In this school where kids experience a design, build, and create ethos across the entire school, the staff realize that kids who make things are engaged – and empowered. They are curious. They want to learn. They are having fun. Discipline issues are basically nonexistent this year. State test scores are up. The principal’s imagination is on fire. The teachers are already thinking about how to make an even more powerful maker school experience next year.

Kindergarten maker work

Kindergarten maker work

Why has making ignited educators, parents and students in this school?

Making embeds informal learning into formal learning experiences. Kids develop more complex vocabulary, apply critical math skills, and explore a range of knowledge as they make. As the principal shared a digital image portfolio with me, his stories jumped out of joyful learning narrative. The story of a young child who decided he didn’t want to make the Statue of Liberty (his choice) but to be the Statue of Liberty complete with cereal box sandals, cardboard body and scepter, and a post it note tablet. The idea that making can be captured in movies and art work and iPad interviews. A project in which two fifth graders created a design for a maker patio outside classrooms, presented it to a landscaper, and now will get to see their project actually built with PTO support.

As we’ve embedded a #make2learn #learn2make mindset as a learning transformation pathway across 26 schools in my district, we are learning there are no linear instructional recipes or boxed programs for this work. Instead, maker education represents learning opportunity embedded in a conceptual frame of choice, interest, curricula bending, risk-taking, collaboration, curiosity, inquiry, tool cribs, and time flexibility.

Interest. Engagement. Passion. Empowerment. Agency.

Because of our work to bend curricula, instruction and assessment away from the standardization movement and toward the maker movement, I am particularly interested in the impact of making as a pathway to learning – a pathway along which children and teens pursue interests, engage their hands and minds, find passions, empower themselves and others, and discover a sense of personal learning agency. The stories this principal shared with me parallel stories that are emerging all over the district.

The STEAM Faire

The STEAM Faire

When I listen to teens describe how they work together to create contemporary music in a music industry studio (created in an old library storage room, no less) – writing lyrics, constructing music and beats, learning to use recording devices, practicing, producing and marketing – I am reminded that making to learn comes in a variety of forms and that when we step away from the standardization we practice in schools, making allows young people to access curricula that otherwise might not be available or of interest to them.

Imagination. Creativity. Ingenuity. Problem-solving. Solution-finding.

Why are we pursuing making? We humans naturally are curious creatures who seek to solve dilemmas, discover shortcuts through invention of new tools, and to express their understanding of the world through art forms. As soon as we can bang pots together, stack blocks, or smear paint we become makers. Children spin their imaginations into creating as they use the materials around them in ingenious ways to solve problems and find solutions to grand challenges. They persist. They ask questions. They seek knowledge. They share ideas. They try new ways of doing things. They dream.

When I watch young people challenged by thorny problems begin to work together to find solutions, it strikes me that boredom is not in their vocabulary. I’ve seen learners, elementary to high school, use 3-D printers to re-engineer artifacts such as the Vail telegraph and Civil War mini-balls. They’ve designed and printed unique smart phone cases, screws for library furniture, and science lab pulleys.  These learners don’t recognize the limits set on their learning by content standards created by people far from the classrooms they attempt to standardize. Instead, these learners seek rigor in their own learning as they take on challenges that build all the competencies that an adult might use in the home, at work, and for a lifetime of wanting to know and do more.

jesse

phone case designed and 3-D printed for the principal

Exploration. Discovery. Design. Experimentation. Invention.

I’ve experienced the joy of children and teens in school this year who find themselves with opportunities to sustain their natural curiosity along learning pathways as they search, connect, communicate and make in and out of school. I am reminded in other classrooms that learning doesn’t happen so well when children and teens are seated in rows for hours on end and expected to vicariously acquire knowledge from the dominant teaching wall. Children and teens like to explore the world in which they live. They seek challenges and take risks as they discover pathways to learning that take them beyond the known horizons of their lives. They tune in through play, stories, movement, games, apprenticeships, and interaction. They design, experiment, and invent to take on new challenges.

They experience ….

Joy. Why would anyone question that joy fuels learning? When young people accomplish hard work they experience joy. When they pursue an interest, they find passion and that passion fuels them to keep on working even when they might quit. When they become makers, they delight in the products they create.

This year, I’ve watched children build wooden boxes, design and construct electric guitars, exhibit their handmade pottery and oil paintings, cook soup, sew bow ties, sing original lyrics, direct, produce, and screen video documentaries. I’ve observed them writing code for websites, games, and apps for smart phones. I’ve read their published prose and poetry in paper and virtual formats. I’ve been delighted by their choreography for musicals and their performance of original drama productions.

For humans such as this teen choreographer are ultimately #maker learners by design … 

I am convinced from my observations that when children are afforded opportunities to explore a rich ecosystem of learning inside and outside of school, they experience an authentic growth in knowledge and competencies that has seldom been available to learners since the printed book began to dominate the ecosystem. When maker experiences become prevalent, all learners thrive, even those who experience great difficulty in traditional school.

Why would I want to offer learners anything less?

20140601-093459-34499043.jpg