The Classroom Isn't Dead: A Case for Space Variety

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I’ve been in Australia for more than four months now, and am excited to share this latest update on the research variables in my study of innovative learning environments. The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC) project, along with the space design itself, is focusing on teacher mind frames and student deep learning.

"It Only Takes One" John Hattie, one of the Chief Investigators on the project, presented this week on the importance of teacher mind frames. The core emphasis of his message was simple: "It only takes one." A single educator misaligned with an overall vision can throw the entire trajectory off track. For example, hiring an educator to work in an open plan school who doesn’t believe in the value of an open plan school would be a critical misstep on the part of the hiring staff or principal.

This discord isn’t isolated to educators – it can be true of any person within any environment or organization – and it gets to the heart of my work with LEaRN and why I believe professional development and organizational alignment are the next frontiers in learning environment research and design. Throughout my experiences, I’ve seen beautifully photographed educational environments that appear to hit all the right marks, yet when you walk the halls of the building, you see only lecture instruction taking place, break-out rooms being used as storage, and an overall sense of disengagement. On the flip side, there are similarly designed schools that seem to foster excitement, and in which the buzz of learning is visceral. So what's the difference? That's what I’m here to find out.

Teacher mind frames are proven indicators of successful learning. John Hattie argues that out of ten identified mind frames, the first is the most important: "I am the evaluator of my impact on student learning." When an ownership mind frame is realized, other mind frames will follow. Educators will begin to see themselves as change agents, paving the way for student engagement that is equal parts dialogue and monologue, and building relationships around trust and collaboration.

Redefining Our Measures of Success Through our research, we seek to understand how the use of space impacts teacher mind frames and student engagement. Success for learners is more so a result not of how an educator teaches, but of how an educator thinks. The same is true for the use of space.

Policy makers and school leaders often look to student test scores to measure success. I contend, however, that using this metric is flawed. Exams often only reflect surface learning – isolated facts, or temporary knowledge usually achieved through lecture instruction and worksheets. Surface learning, while a crucial first step to achieving deeper learning, does little to contribute to the ultimate goal: a student’s ability to transfer knowledge.

If a district is only interested in students memorizing dates or passing an exam, the traditional classroom with one teaching wall and immobile furniture will work just fine. If, on the other hand, a district wants students to think critically, learn to collaborate, and be creative, they should be looking not at test scores, but the learning space as a pathway to achieving this deeper learning. Schools reaping the greatest benefit from space are those with a variety of environments that support all steps in an academic journey: space for educators to gather and facilitate conversations, and areas for learners to work together and brainstorm, to retreat and reflect, create or present. The traditional classroom is not dead, but it is certainly no longer in charge.

I have had many conversations with many school representatives, and we all agree, the skills needed to thrive in the workforce today are vast and evolved, yet often absent in the young people who populate that workforce. We must think critically about how we measure "success,” considering not the numbers on a test page, but the ability of our students to go out into the real world more prepared, more confident, and ready to take on the many challenges they will surely face.