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Reimagining Learning Spaces with Design Thinking: #HackingPBL

Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning
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Before I left the classroom a few years ago, there were a few items on my bucket list I never got to accomplish (and I would have accomplished them had I taught for just one more year)…One of these missed opportunities was a complete redesign of my classroom.

You see, the final year I taught fourth grade, my students and I started our work in science by learning about the scientific method through the creation of original egg packagings with a process called design thinking. In short (ok, very short), students didn’t just engineer creative products, but they did so with empathy for the consumer in mind. And, they then assessed the effectiveness of their homemade creations based on what they determined to be the indispensible features of an exemplary product (while visualizing themselves in the shoes of the consumer).

My students enjoyed our design thinking work so much, following the egg unit and throughout the year I consistently told them something to the effect of, “Once state testing is done in April, I’ll give you a budget of a few hundred dollars and you can use your experiences with design thinking to revamp our classroom.” Nevertheless, for one reason or another, the overhaul never happened.

Designing Learning Spaces

As a teacher, I usually spent the first few weeks of the school year building classroom culture, promoting collaboration, and establishing routines (and, admittedly, a few corny icebreakers on occasion). Looking back, I could have easily accomplished these same goals by having students partake in a relevant, authentic task, such as putting together their classroom from the ground up.

Yes, if I were to do it all over again, on the first day of school my students would enter into a mostly empty classroom (or one that had not been set up) and then I’d engage them in a routine in which they’d create an environment that works for them…After all, if a learning space is for students, they should be its primary designer. (You wouldn’t like it if someone came into your living or bedroom and told you what to do.)

Here’s a look at the phases my students would follow to establish their learning space, while calling upon the LAUNCH Cycle, a design thinking process created by A.J. Juliani (@ajjuliani) and John Spencer (@spencerideas). (LAUNCH is an acronym for the different phases.)

The Process 

Phase 1: Look, Listen and Learn

Prior to entering into the classroom, pretty much all students would probably have been unaware that classroom design was a “thing,” and that their learning space could in fact look drastically different than what they’ve previously experienced. So, start by discussing the problems presented by traditional classroom  setups, as well as a creative way or two in which educators and students have explored other options. Possibly work with students on establishing an essential question that will encompass the entire design process (e.g., How can a classroom work for us?).

Phase 2: Ask Lots of Questions

In this phase, students work in small groups to come up with guiding questions that will drive the remaining phases, and eventually/hopefully lead to answers and solutions that result in a successfully designed classroom. Students will most likely need some scaffolding to come up with questions that are not just relevant, but also actionable given their particular circumstances (amount of money available, what parts of the classroom physically can/can’t be altered, possible fire safety issues, etc.). Support students by asking them to focus their questions on (1) how they will learn best given what they will be exposed to that year (which can be revealed to them through discussion), and (2) the satisfying of the five senses.

Phase 3: Understand the Process or Problem

Still in small groups, students research potential answers to their questions. Research can include, but is definitely not limited to: searching for photographs and articles of classrooms that have been redesigned, looking into companies that provide unique experiences for their employees, exploring what’s available on Amazon and from other retailers, interviewing former students as well as current students who will be impacted by the design, and looking around at what is already available in the classroom. While it may be tempting for students to simply find “cool stuff,” all research should be driven by the guiding questions (which can be revised as necessary), as the ultimate goal is to create an environment that is conducive to learning.

Phase 4: Navigate Ideas

In what is easily the messiest phase, all groups share their research and a master plan is concocted as a class…First, groups share out what they have found through a formal process that should probably involve more than a class discussion, since the goal is for all students to truly digest each group’s work. For example, groups can take the time to formally present their findings, and/or they can distribute all of their content via something like a Google doc. Once everyone is aware of all options, another formal process should be used to sift through everything to arrive at a plan. Once again, things can get messy, but one option is to deal with and decide on each classroom feature, one at a time, and then analyze the class as a whole. Some of these specific features may include: student seating, student desks, classroom windows, etc.

Phase 5: Create

Here the master plan is made a reality. But before any actions are taken, make sure it is clearly communicated “who is going to do what.” The teacher and students – and possibly, administrators, custodians, parents, etc. – may all play a part. As the room comes together don’t hesitate to revise as necessary, but all significant revisions should be decided on or rationalized as a group, as we don’t want students to lose ownership of their work.

Phase 6: Highlight and Revise 

While revisions may take place as the room comes together, changes should also be made throughout the year based on the wants and needs of students. After all, until a classroom (or product) is actually used, there is no way its students (or consumers) can truly anticipate all of the unique situations that will arise. Small modifications, such as a student changing out her chair for a yoga ball, can be made on a daily basis, usually without teacher permission. Meanwhile, in regards to larger modifications (e.g., repainting a wall), the teacher can set aside about an hour a month to formally discuss with students what is and isn’t working, and then revisions can be made as necessary.

Phase 7: It’s Launch Time!

When designing a learning a space, the launch phase can be used to crowdsource ideas for the classroom by making it public through: classroom walkthroughs (by other students, teachers, administrators, etc.), social media, blog posts, conferences, and more. Although these audiences may not include those who are physically experiencing the classroom, many will have value-added due to being involved in education in one way or another. Also, while everyone “oohing and aahing” at the classroom may feel satisfying, make sure to go out of the way to ask for feedback, otherwise it may not be given. While all feedback may not be applied, all of it should be taken into consideration (as long as it comes from a good place), at the very least.

In the End

These seven phases represent a brainstorm of how my students would design my classroom if I were to return to the classroom as a teacher. At the same time, I would encourage current teachers to take what is here and make it work for their students, even if it’s not the very beginning of the school year.

Regardless of the specifics, all decisions should be made with the best interests of students (not teachers) in mind…

Teachers shouldn’t be designing classrooms for Pinterest; students should be designing classrooms for themselves.

What are your thoughts on classroom design? What experiences have you had with your students? How can you relate to the phases described in this post?

Over the next few months I’ll be publishing 10 posts as teasers (not spoilers) for the 10 chapters in our upcoming book, Hacking Project Based Learning, which was written with Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5) and will be released this winter. For book updates, sign up for my mailing list (and also receive a free eBook)...This post is a sneak peak for Chapter 1, Establish a Culture of Inquiry and Creativity. #HackingPBL

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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Tuesday, 19 March 2019