leave room: when there’s space, there’s learning
After watching the new “Christopher Robin” movie this weekend, I strongly believe that every teacher should have a Winnie the Pooh guidebook at their bedside. The bear of “very little brain” and a big heart is a wonderfully refreshing reminder to embrace the total bliss of childhood, bewilderment and the art of letting go. He is the a model of self-care. When teachers provide nurturing learning conditions for their students, Winnie’s “Hundred Acre Wood” should be top of mind.
I’m 30 years old and when I “go-to-work” I’m either cross-legged, sprawled out on the floor or cocooned up on my chair. I’m rarely if ever, sitting up straight. And yet my students are expected to be “four on the floor” or “criss-cross applesauce” at all times? If kids want to sprawl, hang, bounce, squirm, stretch, hop, fidget, hunch, recline or cocoon while they work. Give me ONE good reason why they can’t? A classroom should be compatible with the evolved social species in which it inhabits. Aka. it shouldn’t be a classroom. Classrooms were designed for teachers to teach a group of students. Now, teachers are no longer teachers, but co-learners alongside a group of students.
A modern classroom should be designed to support learning not teaching. There is no supporting evidence that sedentary expectations, artificial boundaries, commercialized “anchor” posters or timetables assist learning. In fact, the research points to the exact opposite. Classroom decor should be quiet and flexible. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology explains that in a visually enriched environment a child’s cognitive performance is actually reduced. So why are we adding to the noise? We constrain and coerce our students and then collect data on their behaviour based on how they learn in these stifling, over-stimulating coops we’ve created. We put students in a contrived room and then test them every day on their behaviour and productivity. So basically it’s a lab, and the kids are the subject. How many kids are labeled failures or even worse, diagnosed or drugged because they can’t adapt to this unnatural environment?
Carol Black is education analyst and director of the film Schooling the World, and in my opinion, the most influential writer in education. She makes a powerful argument for unlearning the way we run schools. We are adding to the noise and classrooms confinements because,
“Control is always so seductive, at least to the ‘developed’ (‘civilized’) mind. It seems so satisfying, so efficient, so effective, so potent.”
I’ll admit, I love being in control of all aspects of my life. It brings me great comfort. Rids me of all anxieties. As a classroom teacher, I constantly asked myself: What choices am I making for my kids that they can make for themselves?
Black goes on to say:
“we go on destroying their wildness, ‘socializing’ them away from nature and into the cage we have built around childhood. Our nice teachers try to find ways to make it ‘fun,’ to limit or at least soften the damage that is done; like zookeepers giving beach balls to captive polar bears, they try to find substitutes for what is lost.”
Now, I’m guilty of the “beach ball” remedy myself. Cool. So you jazzed it up with a shaving cream spelling test, shiny new fidgets, and hot pink photocopies. Doesn’t change the fact that you are handing out a list of isolated, irrelevant words and a photocopy of a Penguin’s-only Research Project. What if they don’t want to learn about penguins? These kids are still “captive” to your power and the carefully orchestrated circus you’ve imposed on them. Harsh. But true. Teachers tell students what to do when to do it and where to do it all day every day and then measure their outcomes. Myself included. Why? Because we are subject to the system and also we love control. But, it was time to unlearn and learn new habits, for my students.
I love interior design. So it wasn’t a stretch for me to redesign my classroom alongside my kids. My first “unlearning” experience happened in the classroom renovation. First, I stripped the room down. If my commercialized posters, alphabet, or anchor charts are parading the walls than I’m taking away a very obvious opportunity for student ownership and exhibition. If their desks are arranged in rows, than I am limiting the opportunity for meaningful collaboration. If I have a desk that I’m using, then I’m staying in my corner of the forest. I am not engaging with my students the way I need to be. If desks are the only seating option, then I am not supporting the kids who need to sprawl, seek solitude, or burn energy.
Stripping down the classroom to nothing, led to the very best something.
I had the kids describe and design their ideal learning spaces (threw a little measurement, financial literacy and ADST learning opportunities into the mix) and we created the very best something. It isn’t flashy, tickity-boo, or even that pretty - but it’s completely theirs.
The University of Salford’s study on Flex space, states that a classroom designed for ownership and flexibility actually made a positive impact on a student’s academic performance. So how do we toss out the face-forward, all eyes on me, sit up straight, keep quiet cage that we built around learning and embrace the ever-changing, purposefully chaotic classroom? How do we rearrange our spaces to foster curiosity, freedom and serendipitous learning?
Inspiration below. We love honouring amazing spaces and amazing people!
Our Top 10 Flex Spaces for Learning
1. Brittany Wheaton
Curriculum Designer, Reading & Writing Enthusiast 6-12 ELA teacher and Classroom Flipper. And is very much a superhero teacher! Her classroom is on another level. It’s the most stylish work-lab classroom I have ever seen.
2. KAYLA COLLINS
Teacher, Presenter, Blogger, Classroom Designer and STEAM Curriculum Developer. She is also a big advocate of PBL & DesignThinking. We are big fans! Check out her blog.
5. Holly Hodges
Kindergarten Teacher and a believer in blended learning, designing responsive classrooms and Reggio learning styles. We love how calm her classroom feels. Check her out!
7. Brit Bingold
Professional Growth and Development Mentor who inspires teachers through mini sessions and courses. She is a leader in flex seating and technology implementation. But what makes Brit truly inspirational is that she is raw and honest about her life and works. Check out her blog here.
8. Paige Cathcart
Teacher who wishes to “make a classroom a home, inspire creativity and ensure her students are silly, resilient & kind!” We are obsessed with her space. Who wouldn’t want to snuggle up and learn here?! Also, she’s got some excellent resources. Worth a look.
9. Meg Poulson
Savvy, modern teacher with a great flare for classroom design. This is what student engagement looks like. Check out her Instagram more inspiration!
10. Miss G
High School American Literature, Journalism, and Newspaper Teacher who is dedicated to engaging and empowering her students. You can find her on Instagram or on her blog.