October 03, 2010

[ #cefpi #tep10 ] Clicks & Bricks: When digital, learning and physical space meet

School buildings as influencers of future practice, not responsive to existing practice

Digital land knows no boundaries of space, time or geography. The effect on learning in the past three years, in particular, has been profound, though not necessarily on learning in schools. More have arguably expanded their horizons through 20 minutes of TED Talks than 20 minutes of most chalk and talks or classroom activities.

Apply the principles of digital development to physical learning spaces, though, and we can imagine a totally different means of designing and constructing new schools, where the physical space takes on a role as vital as the technology itself in pushing on teaching and learning practice in schools by leaps and bounds. The moment for this type of thinking is ripe. It is now.

When we moved from Big Things For People to Enabling People To Make Big Things

Until about three years ago it still appeared acceptable for big organisations like Governments and their myriad of flabby institutions to create Big Things That Do Wonderful Stuff For People. It was a world of impressively large contracts, the Adam Smith notion that public services can only be made affordable if centrally purchased at driven-down prices and provided by private companies or grey-haired civil servants with, preferably, more than a couple of decades experience in delivering product or initiative.

Then we ran out of money.

And we started to pay attention to what had been going on out on The YouTubes and The Facebooks.

The internet showed that scale existed best when it came from tiny startups with big imaginations and no experience, given backing by those with the cash to explode their ideas to the big time but without their meddling (sleeping investors with great black books of contacts are the dream ticket in this land).

These billionnaire twentysomethings have shown that the money isn't in Big (Expensive) Organisations (with Committees, Stakeholders and more pdfs of policy than you could ever read) Do Stuff For People. The money shot was in Tiny Groups inventing Platforms That Allow People to Create Great Things For Themselves. JFK was a startup 40 years before his time: It's not what your country can do for you, it's what you can do for your country.

Now, architects, school planners and builders will still make a lot of money for a reasonably long time by procuring large contracts for many schools. But the clever ones will see the opportunity in thinking more like a startup and designing schools that are not designed around how teachers teach and students learn, but around how they could teach and how they could learn. The way architects pose their questions during initial consultations are hugely important. There's a difference between:

"What kind of building would help you teach and learn better?"


"What kind of teaching and learning would you like to do, and what things could we help with in making that happen?"

There also has to be a healthy dose of "gifting innovation", in never assuming that every building user or school-goer will know how far they could go. In fact, a good session of Best and Worst is a good way to help drop the "what I think I should be saying" and give way to the "what I really want is" conversations.

This is the kind of conversation that at least begins to turn the table from "let us deliver you a great building" to "let us work together to change the way we teach and learn in this place, with the building as one of its foundations".

They'll also have discovered formulae that permit the space to be changeable, on the whim of its project-based, student-led occupants' ideas, to be a nest-like room for one project, and a pirate ship the next. 

The Nest Room at Wieden+Kennedy's office, with its stone-like comfortable sofas: schools could create rooms like this on a whim, to suit the project students have chosen to undertake at any given point. Pic from Tina aka the Swissmiss.

Living Learning Buildings

It takes between 3-5 years to plan and build a new school. That means that the buildings being opened this semester were kicked off in an era that maybe didn't yet know YouTube, and almost certainly hadn't logged into Facebook for the first time. They didn't know what a QR code was or how augmented reality could turn a blank wall into a webpage, into a video or into the view outside. Imagine a school whose best work and most intriguing learning failures could be viewed by passers-by through their mobile phones - a living learning building:

N Building from Alexander Reeder on Vimeo.

No, we were designing schools with steel and glass but essentially, by and large, the same spreadsheet-to-foundations layout inside.

The media world has worked out how to harness the user - education's got a thing or two to learn from it

The media world has been able to move from its equivalent of concrete foundations - the broadcast television show - to create new forms of interactive, co-created, crowdsourced- cohabiting with professionally-produced content. Aleks Krotoski's treatment of the BBC's Virtual Revolution is a textbook model of how a professionally produced doc is made better by giving all its ingredients away to the audience/users.

The approach of those schools who are able to "professionally produce" student-driven learning shows the same adaptability of pedagogy, notably from my recent trips in Albany Senior High, Auckland. Gever Tulley's Tinkering School and the kindergarten kids in Lanarkshire, Scotland, are further examples of what's possible when you reverse the point of the professional in the room: the professional is there to "tilt projects towards completion", as Gever puts it, not professionally produce the learning and 'deliver' it to learners:

When Tim Rylands was sitting with his students, rather than leading them from the front, in his immersions into the world of Myst, he was also changing the model into one of empowering the user/customer/learner to create great things for themselves.

And so to schools' physical spaces. This, in too many "award winning" school plans I've seen, is what is considered a must-have:

New Technology

Even if not laid out in quite as uninspiring a way, the metaphor of this photo stretches into nearly every school and university. It's a space designed for something, but it's not anything that resembles how we really use technology when in the same room as other people. Let me explain.

The Seven Spaces

Matt Locke kicked off with six spaces of digital media that provided a framework for thinking about the media without having to refer to brands (it helps avoid what I call "The Hoover of the Internet" problem when we hear people talking about Facebook, when they really mean social networks, or talking about Google when they really mean... well, it could be anything). Last year, I added a seventh: data spaces.

When we look at the digital media we interact with, with whom we interact in each space and what that looks like in a physical environment, we start to see that these seven spaces provide a fresh format for asking teachers, parents, students and others what they would like to do in a new building, and then design a flow between the right mix of spaces for the projects they will undertake.

Seven Spaces.026

Secret Spaces
Examples: SMS, IM
Think about how you sit when you're texting someone. Go on, text someone now and get someone to photograph you. Now stand up, go for a quick walk around the room, and start looking up a webpage on your mobile phone. Get another photo taken. What do you see? When we're engaged in secret spaces (sending text messages to one other person), as opposed to public publishing spaces (like a webpage or even sending a 'text' to our hundreds of Twitter followers) our body language is totally different.

Therefore the consideration of physical space has to be made. In schools, where are the niche-ing private, secret spaces where we can curl up to text, read a book, perhaps read material that we wouldn't want our peers to see us read (thick books when our friends think it's uncool to read 'proper' books, sex education materials and advice books or websites)? Privacy is hugely important to teens in particular, more than adults tend to comprehend.

Inflatable Offices Maybe we need to think about temporary secret spaces, like the inflatable igloos of Glasgow's Saltire Centre?

Secret spaces needn't be unsafe, either. Take the most secret space we currently have, the WC, and you can see that, by placing the doors to open into a communal area we turn secret into public swiftly, without compromising either.

Group Spaces
Examples: Facebook, Myspace, etc
Digital group spaces work because they're engaged around one thing, and one thing only: how can we help people to find their friends and engage with them in sharing and conversation? Take Facebook's features, and you'll see that all of them, from the wall of friends' posts on login, to even the advertising, are geared up towards this goal.

Again, in school, it seems like most spaces, indoors and out, are geared up to making this virtual "gathering around the fireside" hard or impossible to achieve. Whether it's the distinct lack of outdoors seating areas that, if they're there, are set to face at opposing angles (and thus de-facilitate conversation) or desk and seating arrangements contrived to make us all face one way, or meet considerable pain in trying to shift things around, or even down to the de facto reasoning given for having 25-year walls separating our classroom spaces, school spaces are generally designed to stop people collaborating or talking to each other.

Outdoor School Seating

(image from Gareth Long)

The d.school at Stanford is one place, though, that realises less is more when trying to harness the existing groups and communities in our schools - leave the space as wide open as possible and provide the furniture, objects, lighting or moveable, hanging walls that are required on the side, and on wheels. Take a look at my photo set from an impromptu visit last week with Head Royce School's Head, Rob Lake, as we sought out how his school could change its learning spaces to in turn enable some amazing changes in curricular approach:

D.school Stanford
Want a wall? Take one. Need to gather folk around? Bring your own seat. Want a 'secret' space in which you can hide a bit? Make one. Need more whiteboard? Paint some. The Glasgow Saltire Centre continues this idea with its on-wheels moveable Palm Tree lighting, moveable inflatable igloos and little niches.

Publishing Spaces
Examples: Flickr, Youtube, Revver, etc
Online, when we publish a blog post like this or put up a photo on Flickr, we're hoping that people might find it. We're publishing, flinging it out there and hoping it sticks. The providers of publishing spaces have, over the years, done as much as they can to help these publishing spaces leak into other spaces, or transgress, so that blog posts are sent out to Twitter with ease, which in turn sends them to my friends' groups on Facebook and into individuals' RSS readers.

In schools' physical spaces, this for me is about how digital artefacts of learning can be shared through the building space, much like in the video above where Tweets from within a building are broadcast to its shell and viewed through mobile phones.

Performing Spaces
Examples: MMORPGs, Sports, Drama
Performing spaces allow people to be someone or something they are not. In World of Warcraft you can be grouping with hundreds of other warriors to win battles of epic proportions, while by day you're a computing science teacher.

In buildings, these performing spaces are traditionally seen as epic concert halls. Stanford's latest addition in the Bing Hall is one such epic extension to the learning environment. But these tend to be reserved for those who are not performing in a way that allows them to be something they are not - these spaces are about encouraging and showcasing those who have already worked out that they can be what they dreamed of being.

I wonder what the opportunity is for transforming learning spaces into temporary universes where we can immerse ourselves in a "imagine if" environment. It could be the nest room example, above, or it might be trying to offer buildings that enhance what great languages teachers, for example, have always done - create a feeling of entering into a parallel, slightly exotic French, German, Spanish or Chinese environment.

When the Bassetti architects gang explained how they created 5, 10 and 50 year walls in their school, each designed in a different way to be altered at those periods, I wondered what this might look like on more of a micro level, within one particular learning space. What are the 6-week, 12-week and one school year learning spaces we want to create for our student-led, project-driven work and what affordances do we require?

Maybe it's about turning school buildings into more of a game, especially for those who are new to them. I wonder what inspiration could fill a school build by drawing on the father who, when refitting his Manhattan pad, placed scores of quizzes, nooks, crannies and secret spaces within it for his daughters to discover their new home.

Participation Spaces
Examples: Meetup, Threadless, CambrianHouse.com, MySociety
MySociety were behind one of the most exciting projects that took place while I was at 4iP: Mapumental drew together every public transport timetable in the UK, every house price and a 'scenicness score' to offer an invaluable service to those seeking to move house for a new job. The video explains:

The last element of this project, the scenicness score, is the one where a participation space was created - that is, the scores were not decided by a jury, they were decided by bored office workers the country over who offered up a segment of their time to participate in the creation of a database of information. The project was actually a reasonably compelling game, ScenicOrNot.

Energy generation at Gullane

In school buildings, what might these participation spaces look like? Well, continuing the MySociety fascination with open data, it might be in providing relentless data points where current energy consumption and production of the school can be monitored and added to or acted upon by any student. So far, some schools such as Gullane in East Lothian have got as far as showing the data of their energy consumption and production, but few if any have gone as far as creating a participation space where the community can actually use that data to change their actions or realise the impact of existing actions on the environment through their participation.

Or maybe it's as simple as looking to the creative industries to see the spaces in which they work and how they harness them. When IDEO employees meet to solve a problem, it's not clear where the boundaries of certain space and employees' ownership of that space lie.

And why are we not turning our school yards and grounds into Edible Schoolyards, the ultimate in participation spaces, surely, where we no longer pay for groundsmen to mow immaculate lawns but turn the entire space into a community garden that feeds the school and teaches us all about the sustainability issues of organic food?

Watching Spaces
Examples: Television, Cinema, Sports, Theatre, etc
Finally, watching spaces. These are the ones schools are probably most geared up to at the moment. However, if we change everything about the school from the norm being the front of the classroom to the norm being having no 'front' in the classroom, then we have a wonderful opportunity to really celebrate the great lecture for what it is. TED Talks have proven the global appetite for superb, but short, lectures. And yes, even youngsters are blown away by the performance of an amazing speaker.

By making the norm in schools one of collaboration and teacher as a guide, "tilting towards completion", then we can afford to create genial spaces for lectures, spaces that thrill and delight and celebrate those occasional moments of lone insight that only a real, living, flesh and blood teacher or visitor or student could ever offer.

Changing our approach to building school spaces in this way isn't easy, and it's a real chicken and egg as to "what comes first". The fact is, we need to consider building our bricks and building our curriculum at the same time. We need to be constructing learning walls with our teacher and student peers, but also with our architects and builders. We need to be looking at how our timetables can move from 45-minute, 90-minute or 2-hour chunks into something more akin to the flow we have when in the midst of a longer project (or blog post ;-). How could a building redesign bring us closer to the kind of learning flow achieved at the Stovner school in Oslo with a timetable like this? :

School timetable

Want to discuss this more? Have a read of The Third Teacher, and visit my friends at Cannon Design, Bassetti, the Academy for Global Citizenship (started aged 23 by the amazing Sarah Elizabeth Ippel) or my own delicious links on building schools.

Tune into our Rebuilding the 21st Century Classroom and Student-led Learning Sessions at Bahrain's The Education Project this coming weekend.

The Tinkering School's Gever Tulley joins me on my panel at The Education Project in Bahrain this week. Tune in Sunday October 10th where I'll be tweeting and hopefully live streaming our panel on how students can lead their own curriculum by playing around, and with another group we'll attempt to rebuild the 21st Century Classroom.


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Ewan, Thanks for posting this. So much of what you have detailed is helpful for my colleagues and me as we explore solutions with schools and districts.

Your pal in SoCal,

Ellis Kaufman

[email protected]

Ewan, what a fantastic resource and summary of the importance of space to learning. In Australia we have had a fantastic opportunity through our building education revolution, to think about how learning spaces could help educational reform. However, as it was a stimulus package and not educational we got more four walls....sigh. We need more thinking at policy level about this key issue.

Hi Ewan,
I echo the comments made above by Garry, a really interesting and informative article, I especially like the bit about 'The Seven Spaces'.

Great post. Had to quote you in one of my own articles on design process - it came along just at the right time! See bottom of:


Thank you a lot Ewan, that is a great article. No I know how to call spaces I use to market products!

At the heart of your comprehensive overview (many thanks, Ewan) lies the need to create evolved spaces that humans feel comfortable to be in. This creates the safe conditions within which radical change can be welcomed, toyed with, discarded or embraced. Certainly buildings that force change by imposing stress positions are tough on schools and expensive in terms of collateral damage.

Fascinating. Love to try some of this!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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