A friend of mine has just been reading this blog for just a few months and she observed: "Your posts are like Seinfeld episodes. You remember an episode (#150) as the one where George's keychain gets buried in a pothole, but it's also the one where Elaine moves into a closet to get Chinese takeout deliveries, Jerry's germ phobia hits after he drops his girlfriend's toothbrush into the toilet and Kramer adopts a highway." So, what she is saying is that there are usually several post subplots in my blogging. (Hopefully, she's not implying that this is a "blog about nothing.")
Some of this "style" of mine also comes from having listened to a lot of Jean Shepherd radio programs as a kid (there's more to Shep than just A Christmas Story) and the fact that I write with my ADD unrestrained.
So, though this is the episode post about the design of learning spaces, it's also the one about Bill Bradley and connectivism.
I was thinking about something that Chris Lehmann wrote on his blog a while ago. He is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy. It's a science and technology high school in Philadelphia, PA that he self-describes as "an inquiry-driven, project-based school where students would be assessed by the work of their own creation."
I think of 'School Design' as much more than the way we physically build our schools. I think of it in terms of pedagogy and course structure and values. And I admit, that I used to think (and still think, to some degree) that you can bring powerful educational ideas to bear on a little red school house, but it's a whole lot easier to do it when the spaces match the philosophy.
At NJIT, I worked on a "Classroom 2016" project last year that was trying to imagine the classroom of the next decade. One thing that was obvious in our review of the literature out there was that people were calling classrooms "learning spaces." Whatever hype or vendor buss terming that might imply, there was also the very real idea that "classrooms" exist virtually and in places on campus that are not the traditional spaces we think of when designing rooms. Many libraries are rethinking study areas, lounges, computer labs, laptop spaces as learning spaces. Dormitories and campus centers are doing the same kinds of things. You start to wonder if we will still have "academic" buildings in the same way in ten years.
I had come upon a phrase in that research about students' sense of place. That made me think of a book by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, John McPhee. Back in 1965, he wrote A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton which I read in high school for a sports "book report" (remember those?). It started me on McPhee books and would later be part of why I admired and supported Bill Bradley (All-American basketball player at Princeton, Rhodes Scholar, NBA star, and 3 terms as our NJ Senator).
The book's title comes from Bradley's uncanny knack for knowing his position in relation to the basket without looking up.
In some way, this sense of who you are, and a sense of where you are is part of what needs to be designed into learning spaces.
Like Lehmann, I think this design goes beyond the physicality of a school building and into the structure of courses and pedagogy. The ideal is physical space that matches the pedagogy. It's the room that not only allows interactivity and engagement but actually encourages it, perhaps through flexible furniture configurations and media access and group work areas etc.
Writes Lehmann: I think, for me, it was Mr. Wilson's office in high school. He was a Media/English teacher and he ran the TV sports and video yearbook programs. His classroom had an office off of it, and it was there that we all hung out. It was a safe space for kids to hang out with adults outside of the traditional classroom, and it was that space that made classes more real, more humane. I've tried my entire educational career to create spaces where students and teachers could come together as people first.
My own favorite school learning spaces were really those elementary classroom that had "stations" and project areas and walk-in closets with art supplies and their own bathroom. Little self-contained learning worlds. In high school, only the library came close to feeling that way for me.
Looking up - SPHS lobby
This sense of place may come out of the physicality of the learning space. Chris relates this memory of a learning space that was not a classroom:
The high school I'm working with this fall is a science and math magnet school and it's in a beautiful, modern, energy-wise (as in solar & geothermal) space. The building isn't even in use for a full year yet, so I think it's too early to have a sense of the place it will be for learning. But we know that just building the space in a certain way will not make learning change for students or pedagogy change for the teachers.
Here enters the subplot of theory. If you take Dewey's constructivism, or behaviorism, or cognitivism and bring any one into our Web 2.0 world of research, communication & collaboration tools, you might end up with connectivism. Since all those earlier learning theories were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology, they all lack elements that we need to deal with every day. I'm not sure connectivism is a new theory as much as its a new take on some older theories.
Take this connectivism principle: Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. A learner can exponentially improve their own learning by plugging into an existing network.
If there is one thing I always wanted my students to do (and one thing that always delights teachers) it was to connect things we were doing with other learning from earlier in the year, other classes, other disciplines, outside experiences etc. If learning truly is a knowledge creation process, and not only knowledge consumption, then our design of learning needs to address that.
I was never any good on the basketball court, but I do know there were times in both my learning and teaching when I was so in the zone that I never even looked up to see the basket. If we could get teachers and students to not be so concerned with the basket, while they were driving towards it, I think we'd have some real success.