What constitutes an effective work space in schools?

What makes an effective work-space?

An image of an open office from an article describing how open space offices are not effective work-spaces above an image of a pretty standard open classroom described as a "21st century learning space".

So why is an open plan seen as awesome for education but crap for business?

The juxtaposition of these two posts on LinkedIn made me question, again, why we don't attend more to designing spaces that accommodate the variety of tasks learners engage in throughout the day.

It isn't about the shape of the desks, or whether there are walls or not. It is about having access to spaces that meet our learning needs at any given time. Our learning needs also change as we move from attending to a lesson, to rehearsal of skills, to creative application, to assessment of results. These different activities place higher or lower demands on our

Spaces and Cognition

A big open classroom is great for large group activities, but if I'm supposed to be writing creatively, I (personally) want a solitary space like a cubby or study carol and a clipboard to take notes and record ideas. But I'll want to get up and wander to let ideas percolate, or stare out the window while my mind processes things.

If I'm supposed to be working with a partner, we need a larger table for our stuff, some chart paper and wall space. Somewhere where we can talk without disturbing other or being disturbed ourselves.

If I'm supposed to be reading, I want a comfortable chair in a dark-ish room save for the reading lamp. A pot of tea would be nice too.

In the course of a day we ask kids to do all these things with 20+ other individuals in the same space at the same time.

Flexible spaces have been on my radar and part of my practice for quite a while. This past October I gave my classroom a big redesign to create spaces that reflect what Thornberg refers to as Primordial metaphors for cognition. The idea is that we need spaces that promote, accommodate, and support different cognitive acts.

Within our classrooms, some of us have carved out niches for different purposes, but we still design schools, for the most part, as a series of similarly sized and equipped rooms within which everything takes place.

Thinking differently

Think about designing schools more like hotels. There could be a series of various sized work-spaces for individuals or small groups to work, a lobby for quiet reading, a breakfast space for lively discussions, and a handful of large conference rooms for bigger groups, and a grand ballroom for whole school gatherings. With the support of an academic adviser, students could plan out their learning goals, identify needed resources and expertise, then move through the school spaces in ways that meet their needs. Schools would still be staffed with learning experts and content experts who could be accessible to any student in the building.

Changing infrastructure like this is cost prohibitive, of course, but we can re-imagine the spaces we do have. It is possible to carve out niche spaces within a single school room and teaching teams can combine student groups and specialize their assigned spaces to encourage and support different kinds of cognition. One of the incentives for businesses to move to open offices is the cost savings that comes with a reduction in the need for floor space, and resulting lower rent.

Here's something fun to think about too - what if kids were out in the world more frequently, like a work day in a local park, a library, a university, shopping mall. With re-imagined schools, could we do with less space if we had greater access to transportation. I don't know the economics of replacing hard classroom spaces with transportation and using community spaces, but it would be fun to explore those ideas.

Taking what you have and getting on with it

In the end, we have what we have, and we try to make it work. My school has purchased bean bag chairs for the hallways where students can escape the crowd and noise of a classroom, or pull a few together to collaborate. Our library has a number of tables and computer workstations for small group and individual work. It is possible, with some thought and understanding of the primordial metaphor, to carve out functional spaces within our existing schools.

What do you think? Share you thoughts below...

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