Creating Space before Creating Change: A Cautionary Tale

I recently had the opportunity to visit a few schools that are creating amazing learning environments for students. Whiteboard walls, whiteboard tables, movable and adjustable furniture that can be reconfigured in a moments notice. Learning spaces that adapt to students’ and teachers’ needs, often with 1:1 technology available. Here’s what I observed: students sitting, isolated by headphones, focused on screens, furniture in traditional classroom layouts, blank white boards.

Now, I know that these room conversions were an expensive investment. I’m sure much thought went into which furniture to order, mac books or chromebooks, furniture and wall paint colors. I think these improvements to our school environments are not only wonderful, but absolutely necessary. However, I’m wondering if we are putting our early investment into the wrong place. If we don’t invest in the learning behaviors that happen within the space, what have we really changed?

It feels as if we are setting the stage without really understanding the script that will be performed. We bombard teachers with words and phrases: blended learning, project-based learning, design thinking, and then we create these wonderful environments which we release them into and say, “There, go do it!” Now, I know there are some amazing things happening in these spaces as well, early adopters who seem to naturally adapt and can clearly see the vision of new possibilities, but overall, the traditional roles of teacher, student, and school are hard to crack.

What I’m learning through my current journey, is that teachers want to change, students want new experiences, and most school districts see the need to do something different. I’m also learning that you can’t offer traditional professional development experiences, read a book, or attend a traditional conference and expect everyone to just walk away and “get it.” Most importantly, you can’t just order new furniture and paint the walls, expecting that everyone will just know how to perform in that new space.

The Classroom is Obsolete

Like anything that’s worthwhile, it’s a process that requires time and patience. Professional development opportunities need to model the instruction that you would like to see happening. Teachers need time for collaboration and sharing as they wade into new waters along with permission to take risks and make mistakes. It's important to create meaningful learning experiences for teachers outside of their classrooms until everyone experiences their "a-ha" moment. District leaders need to clearly communicate with parents regarding changing practices so they are able to support rather than question new classroom strategies. Schools need to build and define a new learning culture for students with updated expectations and establish new student norms. What does learning look like in that fancy new room? In any classroom? What does learning look like in today’s world? Can everyone see and define the same vision?

The famous movie quote, “If you build it, they will come,” still holds true. But if you want something different to happen when they get there, you need to pave the road.

cross-posted at Innovate, Create, Educate

Kami Thordarson is a graduate of the 2011 MERIT program through the Krause Center for Innovation and has led classes on project-based learning, digital storytelling, and design thinking. She is the Innovative Strategies Coach for the Los Altos School District. Read more at Innovate, Create, Educate.