Friday, July 20, 2012

Bold Is Better than Bland

A couple of friends of mine went into the city last night to hear authors Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, and book designer Scott Stowell discuss their new book Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration.  Doorley and Witthoft are Co-Directors of the Environments Collaborative at the Stanford d. school.  Make Space is about creative spaces and about creating spaces that invite participation and foster cooperation.  There are more than 100 mini-entries in the book about ways to make existing space more collaborative.

Scattered throughout the book are short vignettes and thought-provoking phrases.  Theses phrases such as, "Align with your intent" or "Allow the space and the people to continue to adapt and grow,"  serve as messages for would be designers.  One of these messages contained in the book offered the following about the impact of presenting contrast:

Contrast is perhaps the greatest design tool.  It emphasizes or deemphasizes via difference.  It is a full moon in the sky.  It was Arnold Schoenberg in 1923 and the Ramones in 1976.  It is the difference between a meeting in which you actually do something and most any office meeting.

I see this idea about contrast serving as a guiding principle for rethinking spaces in our school.  As mentioned in a prior post, I am working with several other educators to build an introductory activity for 9th graders around the work of Sol LeWitt.  Initially, using LeWitt's work was about reinforcing process for students.  In recreating a "Wall Drawing" key learning outcomes established for the 9th grade such as collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking would be privileged from the opening of school.  While this is still a motivating factor, a collection of LeWitt inspired wall drawings would provide a strong contrast against cinder block walls and monochromatic classrooms.  It would also empower learners to assume ownership over the space they work in or would rather work in and who knows, possibly inspire others to do the same.

Finding ways to provide design contrasts in schools subtly impacts the learning environment.  For a minute to a look at this meeting space from the Green School in Bali or this High Tech High classroom. Both spaces, through their distinct design initiatives, invite collaboration and transparency.  Think of the difference in creating classrooms that replace glass with cement walls. The contrast between cement and glass in fostering collaboration, promoting transparent learning and ultimately building a sense of community is a significant decision.

The physical design of schools and classrooms is a topic that often fails to be discussed during debates ed reform deabtes.  This is a mistake that has profound consequences.  Vanderbilt Graduate student Ben Shapiro (@BenrydalShapiro ) makes a strong point when he talks about the partnership being formed between his university and a college in Melbourne, Australia.  Mr. Shapiro shared the following about the connection between physical space and learning:

“You have the architectural languages and the educational languages, and they don’t really overlap, but here there are professors in education and architecture who are working together and talking about how space relates to pedagogy.” 

Taking a cue from Ben and from Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, we need to consider how the design of our spaces fosters creative, inventive thinking and cooperation between stakeholders.  A goal should be how do we conceive of new creative spaces for teachers and students to do work in.