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Building Blocks of Change

Workshop participants establish the building blocks of change. Image © Gensler

Inspiration and innovation happen when ideas intersect, yet starting in kindergarten we are taught to put objects, thoughts, and ideas into isolated buckets. Math, Science and English buckets. Good and bad idea buckets.

What if, for three days, we turned these buckets upside down? What if teachers became designers and designers became teachers? What if the stories of education were mixed with those of design? What if we embarked on the challenge of empowering innovation by engaging schools in the process of design thinking?

In April 2015, more than 100 designers and educators from around the globe came together for the Learning Environments For Tomorrow (LEFT) conference, a jointly-designed program led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The objective of the conference was to explore key principles of both teaching and designing innovative K–12 learning environments through design studios, plenary sessions, and workshops. Gensler was asked to participate as faculty for the program, and we led a workshop that we titled “What can schools learn from innovative companies?” The goal was to distill the essence of what makes the spaces of creative organizations successful and to use this essence to establish the characteristics of the next generation of learning environments and create meaningful next steps in implementing this change.

During the workshop, educators and designers took a deep dive into images of spaces built for innovative companies. In teams, they developed a common vocabulary for the types of behaviors and traits that foster free thinking and innovative ideas in creative organizations. Participants ranked the core attributes that most directly affect learning and engaged in a group discussion. They ultimately turned the camera back on themselves: on small cardboard boxes, they each recorded a meaningful and implementable next step for catalyzing change.

The cardboard boxes were then hung on a panel, clustered by common themes. Nine clusters of immediate actions emerged—ranging from changes in behaviors, policies and spaces:

  1. teach teachers to learn
  2. drive collaborative design for learning
  3. observe learning, ask better questions
  4. listen with no constraints
  5. implement flexible collaborative spaces
  6. prototype new learning spaces
  7. activate all space to become learning spaces
  8. mix things up (inside and outside, play and learn, work and fun)
  9. provide time to focus

After the workshop, the installation was made available to the whole conference, giving all participants an opportunity to react to it.

Clusters of immediate actions. Image © Gensler

Since our experience at the conference, we have spent a lot of time thinking about what the “Building Blocks of Change” taught us as designers of education spaces, and what message we can bring to the design process. Six big ideas emerged, which we have documented in the book Reimagining Learning: Strategies for Engagement:

  1. Embrace not knowing
  2. We are transitioning to a marketplace that values those who know how to learn over those who know how to retain information—a context where it becomes important not to know the right answers but to ask the right questions.

  3. Celebrate others
  4. In asking the right questions we recognize the importance of others, for only they can tell us what it looks like from the other side. It becomes no longer about reinforcing our view and what we think we know, but recognizing the power of listening and embracing the views of others. It is less about the individual accomplishments then about what can be accomplished collaboratively. Siloed minds give way to networks of communities.

  5. Allow for disarray
  6. The linear pathway to success (completing high school, graduating from college, and then entering the workforce) has been disproven: Apple, Google, Facebook all deviated from this structure, attesting to the added value of multiple, intersecting trajectories. Continuity and structure give way to interruptions, disruption and unstructured play—where not knowing what you are going to be when you grow up might be a good thing. We shift from a structure that is resilient to change, to one that is highly adaptable.

  7. Make, break and try again
  8. If we are to survive in the emerging economy, we must flip a switch that we each carry deep within: the fear of failure—the very concept of failure must be substituted by the idea of iterations. We are no longer in a time of learning then doing, but learning by doing. The emphasis shifts from measuring products to valuing process. The role of leadership is no longer a conveyor of information but an enabler of experiences.

  9. Make it fun
  10. Boundaries blur. Teachers become learners and learners, teachers. Learning, working and playing intermingle. Life is no longer divided in work versus fun, but work becomes fun.

  11. Light the spark
  12. It ultimately comes down to why we do things—lighting the spark for purpose driven learning—where what you are doing matters. Learners shift from having a passive role in a complex system, to an active role in shaping reality. No longer driven by external incentives but by the internal pursuit of mastery and autonomy.

Image © Gensler

Lighting the spark for purpose driven learning inherently makes learning fun; it motivates learners to make, break, and try again; it makes room for the unpredictable, embracing disarray; it prompts for collaboration, celebrating the perspectives of others; it acknowledges that we do not have all of the answers but gives us the courage to ask the right questions.

As we jointly design the environments that will host the learning of the future, we must look beyond the divide between educators and architects, between behaviors and spaces. Only in the intersection of multiple perspectives can the big ideas that will shape the emerging future arise. The challenge then becomes in how to translate these ideas to small yet meaningful and immediately implementable next steps—the building blocks of change.

Patricia Nobre is a multicultural, multi-talented designer. She is driven to create equitable and environmentally responsible designs, and is an active volunteer with local organizations in her communities. Contact her at patricia_nobre@gensler.com.
Mark Thaler is one of Gensler’s Education Practice Area leaders in the New York office, develops education projects at all scales, from classroom to campus. Mark has a passion for creating learning spaces that inspire, and collaborates with his clients to create these environments. Interested in Gensler’s education research? Send Mark a note at mark_thaler@gensler.com.

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