26 October 2013

Making Learning Spaces: The Secondary Library

If our schools are filled with "teaching places" instead of "learning spaces," what are we doing to change that?

All of us. What are we doing? Because whether you are in a national government, or you're a school superintendent, or principal, or teacher, you can be changing things, if that's what you want to do.

I had to write about this because of what happened with a Tweet from my friend William Chamberlain:
Choices in seating, in seating height, in gathering or hiding, and yes, fireplaces,
all make the typical recent McDonald's interior a far better learning space than most classrooms.
"McDonald's has better learning spaces than most schools," Chamberlain wrote, and, of course, he is right. Dozens of teachers joined in and retweeted this which is good, except.. when we tried to shift the conversation to what teachers might do, there was far less uptake. Now, I'm all for complaining, I do plenty of it myself, but honestly, if your classroom sucks as a learning space... fix it.

Fixing it... third grade teacher Derk Oosting doesn't wait, he acts

"Fixing it" doesn't always require money or getting new things, it often requires more subtraction than addition, getting rid of desks and miserably uncomfortable classroom chairs. Kids prefer floors anyway, whether its kindergarten or university. "Fixing it" mostly requires a mindset built around the ideas of "Choice and Comfort" and "Instructional Tolerance" and "Universal Design."

We remove the cultural expectations which have nothing to do with how humans learn. We remove the cultural and religious expectations of discomfort as some sort of positive. We remove ourselves as arbiters of some sort of schoolhouse propriety. And in doing so, we enable our children to find their own paths to success in school and in life.

Interlude: the eyes of a designer

Click 53rd and Park, New York City to get to this intersection in Google Earth.
There is a problem here, of course, which lies with the way educators are educated. They are not, unless their career paths have taken them far from "education," trained in design vision or design thinking. Years ago I taught Intro to Architecture at the Pratt Manhattan Center in New York. By the third class session we'd go on a walking tour, and early in that tour we'd end up at the corner of East 53rd Street and Park Avenue. At that intersection stand three landmarked structures, Mies van der Rohe's Seagrams' Building, Gordon Bunshaft's Lever House, and Charles McKim's Racquet Club. On the fourth corner is 399 Park Ave, a building completed in 1961 for Citibank - or as it was then called - The First National City Bank of New York. This building is on no one's landmark list. Why?

The why? requires learning to use Design Vision and Design Thinking, and also requires that observers step away from "I" statements. What makes three of these buildings great and the fourth a mediocre pile of steel and glass is really not a question of personal preference, it is instead an understanding of humanity and how humans see and understand. There are lots of clues to the failures of 399 Park when it is compared to its neighbors, from window shapes which violate the Golden Mean to an entry that's somewhat unfindable to massing which fails to meet the ground - and pedestrians - with grace, but the untrained observer will not see them - or will not understand what is wrong - without help.

Who helps educators do this? When an educator looks at a classroom, or a corridor, or a library, or a playground, or the school's entry... what do they see? How do they understand what they see?

Libraries - the Learning Commons

Middle School Library gathering space, connectivity everywhere
In the school system in which I work we invest very heavily in libraries. This counters a US national trend towards abandoning libraries and laying off librarians, but we see our school libraries as the center of our transformation from a collection of "teaching places" to a community of "learning spaces."
In New York, as in districts across the country, many school officials said they had little choice but to eliminate librarians, having already reduced administrative staff, frozen wages, shed extracurricular activities and trimmed spending on supplies. Technological advances are also changing some officials’ view of librarians: as more classrooms are equipped with laptops, tablets or e-readers, [New York City Schools' city’s chief academic officer] Mr. Polakow-Suransky noted, students can often do research from their desks that previously might have required a library visit. 
Now, I think we're smarter than Mr. Polakow-Suransky, and we've alway assumed that our libraries are more than a place for students to use the World Book, but we also know that if libraries are to be the Learning Commons at the center of our schools they must be re-thought, re-imagined, and re-designed in ways are far beyond "tinkering." In a century where all the world's libraries are linked to our phones, where information and books are no longer scarce but somewhat overwhelming, and where curation has become a mass participation exercise, the function of libraries as learning spaces requires radical change, and we expect our school librarians to not just change and adapt, but to be the leaders in our school buildings.

HackerSpace in one of our high school libraries
seating choices from bean bags to pub-height bar, technologies, tools
What do we look for? We look for flexible, adaptive, multiple media learning and creation environments. We look for student comfort, student choice, student-centric spaces. We look for students dropping in - all day long, whether elementary or secondary - so we know this is not "just" a scheduled space. We look for flexibility of design and the ability of students to alter that design as they need to - what we call "Student-Crafted Learning Environments."

Learning Environment"
We expect our libraries to be MakerSpaces. Our libraries have legos, music studios, construction areas, one has a Makerbot 2 replicator, which students - quite "casually" - come and use to prototype things they've designed.

Students come with lunch and snacks and drinks, move the furniture, grab technology or bring their own, settle in, and work in contemporary environments.

Our libraries are far more kitchens than supermarkets these days, which makes sense. Our information supermarkets now reside in our hands, our quiet study places now reside in our earbuds and headphones, but our gathering places, our "Learning Commons," the places where we come together, for communion and contagious creativity, those are often what we are missing.

We've done this with money - creating a "Glass Room" quieter space at one high school, buying shelves which roll in many elementary libraries - and we've done it without money - dumping old VHS tapes and magazines and other stored items, and eliminating librarian offices to create quieter spaces, music studios, and maker spaces in others.

We've done it buying new soft seating and we've done it with kids and volunteers padding windowside shelves and turning them into window seats. We've done it with commercial furniture from Bretford and Turnstone and we've done it with stuff from the seasonal clearance piles at Walmart and Target.

A hand-me-down created "quieter space" created from what was,
for ten or more years, storage.
We've cut down or eliminated space-hogging circulation desks and bought boxes of wet wipes to clean up food and drink spills. We've created open computer networks which let kids connect their own devices and we've built "tool cribs" of differing devices for our students to use.

Changing "Teaching Places" into "Learning Spaces" is
primarily about the attitudes we adopt.
The point is that the time for excuses and complaining is over. Whoever you are, wherever you are, outside of say, a KIPP school or maybe the city school districts of New York and Chicago (thanks to mayors Rahm Emanuel and Mike Bloomberg), you have the power to undo your teaching place and create a learning space in its stead. The trick is to begin.

- Ira Socol


Ms. Grenier said...

Timely and informative --indeed flexible, dynamic student-centered learning spaces ensure student success. Pingree School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, is hosting a Learning Commons Conference on February 18, 2014, and we encourage all educators interested in the Learning Commons model to attend. We are also encouraging presenters and poster submissions. See http://learningcommonsconference.pingree.org/page.cfm?p=3113 for more information.

Amy Lamberti said...

Listen to how others also are doing work here as well. The movement is on with learning RedesignED.