Creating Space to Learn

Schools are best when they are personalized, student-centered, project-based, and incorporate real-world (work-based) learning.  The “Three R’s” used to be Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic; today, we should be focusing more on Relationships, Relevance and Rigor. Students not only need to learn how to read and write and understand basic math skills, but more broadly, they need to know how to communicate, think critically, collaborate, and persevere.  We know from John Dewey and current brain research that self-directed, experiential education is most effective when it is relevant to our interests and passions, and challenging enough to inspire and motivate us.  Dan Pink writes about the new drivers of motivation as Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose – for teachers to truly motivate their students, good grades and extra credit aren’t enough (in fact, these extrinsic rewards might be detrimental to the learning process).  Instead, students need to be given the resources and space to master their subject; they need to be able to work at their own pace and reflect on their own progress; and they need to find their work intrinsically meaningful.  These are challenging things to do in the traditional school and classroom space.

What is often missing from the discourse of education reform is creating the right space for students to learn effectively.  We rightly criticize standardized testing, district-mandated curriculum, merit-based pay, and education technology as solutions to the drop-out crisis in our schools today.  But we rarely discuss the places, spaces, and buildings – the overall ecology – where students are learning. The first thing a student notices on his or her first day of school is a matter of place: Do I belong here?  Do I feel welcome? Is this space inspiring? Do I feel motivated to learn when I step inside (or for that matter, stand outside)?

An average student might spend over 5,760 hours in high school; that’s about 50% of their waking weekday hours confined to the same walls for four years.  Think back to your high school, and what comes to mind: big, anonymous buildings; stationary chairs and desks; minimal time outside; and a very structured routine.  We are trying to empower successful students – collaborative, creative, contributing members of society – without giving proper time (and space) to the design of places of learning.

Briefly, we need to think of school design not in isolation, and not in the traditional prison-like brick building of yesterday, but as an urban-planning challenge – and an opportunity – with enormous social, economic, and political returns.  To learn effectively, students must be connected to their environment, to their interests and passions, and be able to tinker, build, make, and design their own projects and curriculum. Like Big Picture Schools, we need to connect them to professionals who make a living doing what they love, and we need to better integrate the sciences, technology, arts, engineering, and math (STEAM) in more creative ways.  

In our ideal school community, we need a student-run garden, kitchen, gym, and science lab; we need rooms for meetings, advisories, lectures, and an auditorium.  We need a library and phone booths, gathering and break-out spaces, moveable chairs and desks as modeled at the Stanford Design School.  We need maker spaces and music studios, art barns and ropes courses, movie nights and speaker series,  recreation center and a pool, gym and music center, track and field and off-the-grid food truck space…  Our ideal school is round – as those in Cuba – to maximize the physical learning dimensions and so you can never tell a student, “Go sit in the corner”…  If we design schools as the cultural hub of a city – a nexus of learning – rather than a spoke, imagine the positive change we could inspire for students, parents, teachers, and public policy.

Seth LindenComment