Monday, 19 August 2013

Spaces that foster entrepreneurship

Continuing to flick through Make Space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration, I came across a fascinating little vignette about the development of a space that would be used by entrepreneurs to create and launch disruptive products from scratch. The Runway Program, set up by Innovation Endeavors, attempts to help budding entrepreneurs form multi-disciplinary teams and support them through the development and launch of a new idea/product.

We realised that the trick was to be clear on what key activities, mindsets and cultural values we wanted to promote, and then understand how they could be manifested in a specific space solution.

The key principles that they identified and ran with were:

  • Embrace imperfection. 'Getting it right' is an evolutionary process and to be welcomed.
  • Make the default stage state high energy, lean forward and collaborative. The active state of mind that is necessary for the generation of ideas and energy is encouraged through mobile, upright furniture, standing-height desks and mobility in the work space.
  • Celebrate getting out into the world. A crucial aspect of entrepreneurialism is engagement in the wider world, discovering problems and testing solutions. This means the space needed to be designed for churn, with people coming and going. It also signalled an opportunity for ongoing work to be displayed for the other members of the program to view, consider, respond to and act on.
In light of Yong Zhao's call for education to cultivate entrepreneurship (about which I have blogged here, here, here and here), the question I am asking is "What mindsets are encouraged by our learning spaces?" I find the embracing of imperfection particularly challenging - I like the school to look good, which can imply a 'finished' message. But does a buffed and polished space discourage creation and innovation, through its implied perfection and completion? How free do students feel to tinker and tweak and 'have a go' with all the risk that doing so implies, when the built environment around them is just lovely. And, in the context of a fee-paying independent school, what are community expectations? What do parents expect a learning space to look like?

I love that learning spaces for students in the younger years are more likely to be characterised by this embrace of imperfection. The spaces speak of creativity and 'having a go', work is displayed at varying levels of finesse and finish and there is frequently an improvisational dimension to the room. Somewhere along the way, we get nervous about displaying work whilst it is in progress ....

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

What sort of posture generates ideas and energy?

One of the books that I am flicking through whilst thinking about space, furniture, the built environment and such things is Make Space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration which is a publication from the - the design faculty at Stanford University.
Make Space : The Book

One of the snapshot articles recounts a project in which the class explored the relationship between a working environment and a team's collaborative dynamic. The team observed a correlation between students' posture and their willingness to generate ideas. For example, students seated on a couch tended to sit back and criticise other ideas rather than creating their own.

The team created a range of prototypes in which teams would work: the War Room - straightbacked chairs around a table; the Lounge - comfortable and soft couches; the Dance Floor - a bare space with clear boundaries and no seating options; and the Sandbox - a wooden box on the floor with a padded interior for seating.

Ideas and energy were highest on the Dance Floor, where lively interplay between students and dynamic movement were noteworthy. Posture demonstrably had a profound effect on student behaviour.

So, the question is, why do we require students in school to spend so much time sitting in static positions in classrooms ....?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Future Perfect - by Steven Johnson

At the ISTE 2013 conference earlier this year, one of the keynote addresses was given by Steven Johnson. I blogged about one of his books here. HIs most recent book is Future Perfect: the case for progress in a networked age.

In this book he surveys three conceptions of political structure. 

The first is centralization, epitomised for Johnson in the construction of the French national railway system - the Legrand Star - in the 19th century. This system was "perhaps the most iconic symbol of state planning ever built: an orderly, geometric series of rail lines radiating out across the nation from the centre point of Paris." Centralisation, according to Johnson, looks best from above. Power is centralised, the peripheries feed the core, master planning trumps local distinctives. In order to make the system legible, complexity, nuance, standardisation are all reduced.

The second conception is decentralisation, which recognises that the knowledge necessary to make centralisation work effectively is ultimately unobtainable. The complexity of society prevents us having a concentrated and integrated understanding of all relevant information; centralisation ultimately ends up being inefficient and unworkable. In contrast, the market as a decentralised mechanism is taken to be the adaptive, innovative and responsive means by which society can function.

The third conception is that of the distributed network; the internet is his exemplar of this model. There is no state-centralised control, nor is the marketplace the key driver of change; rather peer-to-peer connections are the heart of the model. These connections provide the resilience, the creativity and the life of the network.

In the rise of the peer to peer network, Johnson sees a new frame for the social architecture of our world. 

The greater part of this book explores some of the ways that peer-to-peer networks are emerging in society and solving problems that have been intractable both to the centralised state and to the capitalist market. It is a great read! Johnson has a gift for encapsulating ideas in narratives - using incidents to illustrate and unpack the concepts he is describing. This text is unabashedly optimistic about the future, which is tremendously refreshing in and of itself.

So what are the implications or challenges for schools? A few obvious ones emerge:
  • Young people need to learn the skills to collaborate and participate productively with others. This will require them to be able to articulate ideas, to think creatively, to improvise and borrow and innovate.
  • In leading a school, it suggests that innovation will arise from the edges, not the centre. How can we make sure that innovation is not stifled?
  • Connecting people (whether students, staff, teachers, parents or other stakeholders) to facilitate the flow of information and ideas is likely to make a more resilient organisation.
  • Problem-solving is best done by networks. When a problem is identified, how can a peer-to-peer network be engaged in solving it?
  • Be hopeful! We may be discovering a better way!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Visiting Northern Beaches Christian School

A team of people from my school visited the Northern Beaches Christian School today, courtesy of their research arm the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. Our goal was to reflect on the relationship between the built environment and teaching and learning; I am confident that all of us found it to be tremendously stimulating. 

A core insight that emerged from listening to the principal, Stephen Harris, is that learning for students takes place in the context of physical space, virtual space, culture and professionalism (which entails the pedagogy, commitment and capacity of the teachers). I particularly appreciated his point that school culture needs to be 'aggressively' cultivated, in that young people receive aggressive enculturation from the world around them, shaping their thinking on any number of fronts. If we want to reframe culture in the school, such that it is distinctively different to culture elsewhere, then we will need to be intentional, purposeful and deliberate about it.

At NBCS I was struck by the engagement and the ownership of learning that was demonstrated by the students. While recognising that NBCS sees itself as on a journey, rather than having arrived, the culture of the school - inasmuch as it is student-empowered and self-initiating was clear to the observer.

In our context, school culture is articulated in our values and in the outcomes to which we are working - that is, our Inaburra Learner Profile. These things describe both what matters to us and where we are going. In order to be effective shapers of our culture, these ideas need to be explicitly embodied in words and tangibly enacted in deeds as a matter of everyday life. I wonder whether these aspirational articulations of our identity, purpose and culture are equally clearly recognised to the visiting observer ...

Monday, 5 August 2013

Seven Spaces of Education Technology

I came across this video by Ewan McIntosh, exploring some ways that thinking about the way that technology functions can be overlaid our educational spaces. Sounds esoteric - but very stimulating. Take the time to watch - it takes just under 15 minutes. I love the way that form follows function and flexibility is key. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Firing the imagination for buildings, space and furniture

During the course of this week I have had the great fun of visiting three different schools in Sydney. Part of the agenda has been to see the way that other schools have imagined and built space to facilitate the learning of young people. The contexts of the schools have been very different from each other - and different again from my school. I visited a K-12 inner-city girls school, the K-2 building of another inner-city girls school and the 3-6 campus of a large suburban K-12 boys school.

Things I noticed:

  • Space has a profound shaping effect on learning. A room filled with rows of desks facing the front makes a number of statements, as contrasted to a room with grouped tables in which there is no evident front. 
  • A sense of play can pervade a space - as can a sense of order and regimen. A room filled with things to touch and move and fidget with and manipulate stimulates creativity and exploration and possibility and fun.
  • Technology needs to be mobile if it is to be integrated into normal life for young people.
  • Learning spaces need to be bigger than they used to be. Also more flexible. 
  • It is easy to say that form should follow function. It is harder to break free from traditional forms and imagine something entirely new. Rip van Winkle awaking from a hundred year sleep would still recognise most classrooms that I have visited. (Even the language of 'classroom' is revealing. Why does it need to be a room? Why a 'class'? What is a 'class' anyway? 
  • Playgrounds in Australian schools should have a water-feature
  • Land that slopes is full of potential for interesting architecture and landscaping, but probably a massive pain to build on
Did I mention the need to build with flexibility in mind? As the world continues to change, so too will the shape of education. Given the unpredictability of the future, if we are investing in buildings, it is only sensible to maximise their flexibility and the range of possible configurations of the space.

Finally, I was reminded that good architects are brilliant. So are good teachers!