I had come to a place where I was meant to be. I don’t mean anything so prosaic as a sense of coming home. This was different, very different. It was like arriving at a place much safer than home. ~ Pat Conroy, The Lords of Discipline
At the start of this school year, I have been obsessed. Obsessed with learning and working environments. Over the summer I wrote about my own learning and writing places. Since school has started here in Australia I have been focusing on the spaces in which I work and teach: my classrooms and a new office space for my team of coaches (these are the teachers who will be coaching teachers in our school-based teacher growth model).
My thinking about working and learning spaces is based on a few personal principles:
- Comfort. This is physical comfort (Is it comfy? Can each individual make themselves comfortable?) and emotional comfort (Does each person feel like they belong? Is the space welcoming and emotionally cosy?).
- Flexibility. I am a great lover of flexible spaces. What I have found – in classrooms, working with colleagues, writing in cafes for my PhD thesis and watching my own children and husband interact with environments – is that we all have preferred ways of being in a space. When we are working at home, my husband stands at a tall bench while I recline on a couch. Given movable pieces like beanbags and floor cushions, children and young adults will take charge of a space and make it their own, changing groupings or even purposes of furniture. Each will find a nook in which, or stool on which, they feel they belong.
- Appeal. While we don’t necessarily want our classrooms, offices or homes to look like something out of a Scandinavian design magazine, for me it is important to pay attention to bringing visual appeal to a space. This might be about colour, space, playfulness, details, natural materials or tactility.
- Ownership. How can the space belong to the people who use it? This might include student-driven spaces and displays in classrooms, family-focused rooms at home, or offices which bear the mark of those who work there.
- Purpose. The work of Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding (including their excellent publications) explains spaces in terms of purpose: campfire spaces for learning from someone else, watering hole spaces to learn collaboratively with others and quiet cave-like spaces for nestling into learning from and with yourself.
What follows are some examples of these principles in action. Get ready for a picture-fest.
My space principles apply in my home, too. We have piles of beanbags, cushions and ottomans which get moved around the house depending on the space required or game at hand. I have DIYed artwork for the walls of my children’s play and sleeping places. (There is something about DIY that really appeals to me. Maybe it is the catharsis of creativity but I always feel that, if I make something, I instil that something with a piece of myself, my energy and my investment in the person or people for whom I am making it. This goes for my kids’ birthday cakes, the things I have made for their rooms, the artwork I create for friends and family, and the learning and office spaces I have had a hand in designing for students and colleagues.)
Open learning spaces
When I was Head of Faculty at my school, I had the opportunity to work with a team to design and furbish renovated classrooms. These two immersive spaces are my favourites.
Early learning teachers seem to be great at creating environments for their students. In my (limited) experience, this is especially true of Reggio and IB inquiry classrooms. High school classrooms and school offices, however, tend (and I am generalising) to default to ‘seated at grey desks and chairs’ as the main way to learn and work.
This year in our high school English classrooms, we have removed teacher desks (that bastion of symbolic power) which means that teachers need to be flexible about where and how they work. It also encourages teachers to get in amongst their students rather than sitting apart from them or getting students to come to them.
Additionally, we have added more multi-level seating options. Rugs, beanbags, cushions, ottomans and tall benches not only add a homely comfy feel to a classroom environment, they importantly allow for flexibility of space and choice of how individuals work.
Extra whiteboards or walls painted with Idea Paint give the room multiple points of teaching and learning focus (as recommended by learning spaces and places guru, Professor Stephen Heppell).
I spent last Sunday afternoon at IKEA buying high pile rugs, partly for this sense of homey comfort, and partly to add some tactile awesomeness to the shoeless learning / barefoot teaching we are going to try. I haven’t scheduled any official ‘shoeless learning’ time yet, but since mentioning it to my classes, a number of my students have asked at the start of each class if they can work with their shoes off.
The best thing about doing this to a classroom is watching the students. They walk in. They look around slowly and with a mixture of confusion and delight. Most sit at their normal desks. Some hover around the new comfy corner. Someone asks, “Is this for us?” “Are we allowed to sit here?” And the next thing you know, they are making it their own and nestling in. They sit on the floor around low tables. They use cushions as tabletops and footstools as chairs. They lie on rugs. They stand around tall benches. They sink into couches. They feel valued and engaged. They find it easier to find their flow.
I was delighted to hear that my team of teacher coaches would have a war room in which to meet, explore ideas and have coaching conversations. When I inherited the space it had two big tables, a desktop computer and two chairs. I had those removed and got to work reimagining the space for our purpose.
My dream for this space was of collaboration, conversation, co-learning and reflection, so from around the school and storeroom, I found a round table and some chairs, a couch, an armchair, a small bookshelf, a whiteboard and a little table. In they went. I also have two beanbags on order.
Then it was time to work on emotional comfort and visual appeal.
I DIYed some bespoke decorations like the ‘5 States of Mind’ bunting (a concept from Cognitive Coaching) and hanging paper planes. I added and repurposed some bits and pieces from my own house (including some snow domes and the blue painting which is one I painted years ago and has been gathering dust in my garage). A few touches from IKEA and Typo made the office look less officey.
I chose to frame posters rather than laminate them so the feel was more home and less classroom.
Initially, I wanted a plant for the table, but I knew it wouldn’t survive holidays unwatered, so I opted for a bowl full of Play-Doh and squeezy brains: tactile playthings for kinaesthetic thinkers.
Importantly, the quotes in frames and the ‘one words’ on the pin-up board are directly from members of the team. It is their goals, visions and inspirations which have come together in this space. I can feel the collaborative energy there. I hope they can, too.
What are your own principles for designing learning or working environments? Where are your favourite places to learn or work?