Thoughts on designing spaces for learning

bricolage-spaceThis semester I undertook a course called Designing Spaces for Learning with QUT. It was an interesting program exposing me to some new voices on the topic and challenged me to think differently about learning spaces in my own context in new ways. Too often I think we complete assignments for courses that a loan teacher reads, and then they disappear into the bottomless pits of our Google Drives. I decided that some of the ideas I wrote about were worth coming back to and hanging onto. Here is an excerpt I have revisited since finishing that course:

The NCM Horizon Report 2015 K-12 Edition outlined a number of trends, one of which was “rethinking how schools work in order to bolster student engagement and drive more innovation” (p. 2). Scholars and popular educational reformists such as Tony Wagner and Sir Ken Robinson have been challenging schools for some time to shift gears and rethink how we organize and structure learning in relation to these objectives. In Robinson’s video (2006) he said, “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”Wagner (2012) concluded that most schools have continued to overemphasize rote learning and test preparation. He stated that transformation “at every level is essential to develop the capabilities of young people to become innovators” (p. 202). These calls for action are an imperative; as Fullan and Langworthy (2013) put it, “The current situation is intrinsic to our societies’ transition to knowledge-based economies and global interdependency, enabled and accelerated by technology” (p. 1). An equally important trend in schools is the “fast-expanding K-12 strategy meant to foster student creativity: a reliance on “maker spaces”—places in schools, libraries, and other settings, operating with varying degrees of structure or informality, where people invent, create, and problem-solve” (Cavanagh, 2015). So then, with these compelling challenges and possible solutions in mind,  we will examine a policy document from a public library that is actively fostering these ideals.

The Digital Commons Co-working Space (Dream Lab) Policy describes a shared collaborative working space provided to members of the DC Public Library to “develop and sustain new ventures” (DC Public Library). Reflecting the concepts of a learning commons, this policy statement lays out in simple terms the functions and intentions of the organization to support and enable an interconnected innovative community. This is evident in the two-way relationship that users enter into when taking advantage of the commons. While on the one hand, the policy lays out for whom and how the space can be used, it also states the reciprocal exchange expected from users, namely, “to provide a minimum of one (1) hour of public programming per month related to information technologies and/or digital literacy” (DC Public Library, para 2). In this way, the Dream Lab is developing membership and investment in not only the space but also the community of users. The document lays out clear booking and facilities procedures as well as conveys the spirit in which the co-working space is intended for use. E.g. courtesy for others with respect to time, content, beliefs and a reference to rules of behavior. While the policy document does contain details that provide new insights, a number of questions remain unanswered about establishing innovation incubator spaces such as, how much direction and support are provided by staff, how staff manage and utilize the reciprocal exchange, how staff manage infringements, and how is a sense of community fostered? In spite of these remaining questions, the Dream Lab is a model worth considering in schools seeking to support learner autonomy.


Elliot Burns (2005) argued for the importance of learner identity and the need for schools to acknowledge and develop “learners as knowledgeable and creative people, complex thinkers, and reflective, self-directed learners, who actively investigate, communicate and participate interdependently in their worlds” (p. 2). The key here is self-direction. Classroom spaces are not typically common spaces, they are the domain of teachers who consider a classroom their own. How then can students develop autonomy and self-directedness when there are few inviting places that afford the development of this capacity and mindset for active participation. Learning commons are spaces that provide a degree of freedom and autonomy within boundaries. ‘Commons’ implies that there is a shared ownership of facilities by multiple users. The shift to learning commons by libraries in recent years has brought with it a greater awareness of how groups use spaces. For example, traditionally, libraries provided quiet individual areas for people to work whereas now, more often “space is configured for use by small groups of students, reflecting students’ desire for collaborative learning and combining social interaction with work” (Lippencott, 2006. p. 3). The spaces defined by the Dream Lab policy cater to, and enable, a particular type of person or group who is self-directed. One can infer that a person or group using the Dream Lab space has motivation and objectives that exist separate from how traditional spaces for learning have operated. For example,

“Unlike a classroom where a teacher controls the lecture, the organic communities that emerge through collectives produce meaningful learning because the inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself” (Thomas & Seely Brown, 2011. Chapter).

Perhaps the relevance of the Dream Lab example lies in how spaces for innovation are perceived and shaped by users. Some questions to continue to ponder are:

Who owns the space: a teacher or the members of the community?
Who directs what happens in the space: an instructor or the users?
What type of learning can occur in the space: teacher directed or user driven inquiry?

Why Intercultural Competency?

Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a parent Learning Series discussion on global dexterity and how an international education can afford children experiences that can help build intercultural skills. We had some engaging conversations on the topic. The most compelling voice in the room about the benefits came from a Grade 8 student who shared how much her cultural sensitivity and perspective has been broadened since moving to a new culture.

Intercultural competency is a skill set that is becoming highly valued by employers locally and globally. Researchers describe intercultural competency as having the skills to work effectively with others, being sensitive in both verbal and nonverbal exchanges, and most notably, with greater diversity in workplaces, “they need to have the skills to negotiate different social and cultural environments” (British Council, 2013). Therefore, developing intercultural competency from an early age will provide students with an important edge as they compete in a competitive college and career environment. Intercultural competency requires more than having tolerance for others. Intercultural competency is a skillset that touches on several different kinds of intelligence including cultural and emotional intelligence. In a study of global leaders, Tucker et al (2014) found that highly successful leaders consistently display the following characteristics and behaviours.

  • “Enjoy new challenges, strive for innovative solutions to social and situational issues and learn from a variety of sources;
  • Build and maintain trusting relationships;
  • Socialize comfortably with new people in unfamiliar social situations, demonstrate genuine interest in other people, and exhibit a good sense of humor
  • See through vagueness and uncertainty, do not become frustrated, and figure out how things are done in other cultures;
  • Remain calm, without being critical of oneself
  • Demonstrate respect for the political and spiritual beliefs of people of other cultures” (Tucker et al, 2014).

These skills are complex and not easily taught. They are in fact, often acquired through life experiences that are singularly unique, such as growing up in a biracial family or living outside your national culture.

CC: 3.0 by DarwinPeacock, Maklaan

To support children to develop this ‘global dexterity’ requires a combined effort from home and school. The British Council points out, “The research shows that despite this high demand for intercultural fluency, most employers say that education providers in their countries do not sufficiently develop these skills in students before they enter the job market” (British Council, 2013). Schools have a role to play in providing conditions and opportunities for students to practice skills in teamwork, to develop empathy for others from different backgrounds, and also to learn new languages–a recognized avenue for developing cultural awareness. Families have a part to play too. There are particular experiences that encourage intercultural competence in children. For example, encouraging children to be open and curious, supporting their friendships with children from other cultures, and of course, traveling to different cultures are three ways that families can nurture the development of these skills (Pica-Smith & Poynton, 2014). Particularly if in an international context, schools and families, are afforded opportunities to nurture children’s capacity in this valuable competency.

Pica-Smith and Poynton, (2014). Supporting interethnic and interracial friendships among youth to reduce prejudice and racism in schools: the role of the school counsellor. Professional School Counseling, v18 n1 p82-89 2014-2015.

Tucker, Bonial, Vanhove and Kedharnath, (2014). Leading across cultures in the human age: an empirical investigation of intercultural competency among global leaders. Mar 6;3:127. eCollection 2014. doi: 10.1186/2193-1801-3-127

British Council. (2013). Global research reveals value of intercultural skills

Wilce, M. (2004). Growing up global. Tokyo Families Magazine

Google Apps for educators

Last night, Brendan Madden and I facilitated a workshop on using a range of Google apps for teaching and learning for some of the nice folks from The Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT). JALT has been hosting a learning series to help enable their members to develop their knowledge and use of technology. It was a fun evening with time for sharing, demos and practice. Several people received certificates from JALT in recognition of their commitment to attend five sessions. Some members are also preparing to take the Google Educator exams to gain further recognition for their learning.


JALT workshopRather than dictating the agenda for our session, we began the event with a Dotstorming activity. Participants voted, and we then rank ordered the apps we proposed to explore. Guided by participant choice, we spent time looking at Google Maps, Google Drawing, Google Photos, and finished off with Docs. The evening was a nice reminder for me, that not everyone uses or is familiar with some of the Google tools that I may now take for granted. My favorite part of gatherings like this is hearing and sharing ideas of how technology can be used in innovative ways.

Why invest time in action research?

One of my professional learning goals this school year has been to deepen my understanding of action research by engaging in it with interested colleagues. action researchAction research is an active learning approach undertaken by an individual or a group to improve some aspect of teaching and learning in their context.  Citing Gladwell (2000), Michael Fullan (2006) argued that the role of community in school improvement initiatives is to provide a safe and structured process to challenge old beliefs and to create new ones through “purposeful interactions between and among individuals” (p. 116). We know that we learn more when we reflect on our experiences rather than going through the motions and simply moving on. Which makes action research job-embedded PD. I like the point Peter Cole (2004) makes about this kind of professional learning:

“Schools and one’s colleagues within the school provide the conditions for a more authentic learning experience and one that is more likely to result in change in classroom practice than does an experience designed for and delivered to a generic audience drawn from a wide range of school settings and contexts” (Cole. 2004, p. 7).

In other words, school-based learning that addresses contextual teaching and learning challenges can have a bigger impact than off-site PD or using outside consultants who do not address unique contextual issues.

So far we have teachers looking deeper into assessment, personalized learning, science misconceptions and student directed learning. One of our MS science teachers who is leading her own project asked if we could come up with a template to signpost the process and provide a structure to document the work with. Here’s what we came up with. Another helpful resource I have been using is Richard Sagor’s book, Guiding School Improvement with Action Research. The book offers strategies and examples that have helped with developing conceptual maps of focus areas and pointed to some different kinds of data can be collected.

So what’s next?
The plan is to share a collection of case studies and research stories for our colleagues at ASIJ, and perhaps beyond.

Reflecting on EARCOS leadership conference

I am never one to shy away from a challenge and am quite fond of tackling wicked problems. 🙂 Which is why I was excited to join Paul O’Neill in planning and facilitating the EARCOS Preconference session for curriculum leaders. The focus? The knowing-doing gap. 

Given all we know, why is change so hard? There is no easy way to answer that question and we certainly didn’t try to–rather we hoped to create a space to enquire and explore ways to understand and adapt to challenges.

We started by crowd-sourcing some of the common things we know schools and educators keep doing despite what we know from research and from our own experiences in schools.

doing knowHere are some of the ideas the groups charted.

Change of any kind can feel uncomfortable–at an individual and at a system level. Is it because we expect instant success? How open are we to tolerating the dip that usually occurs pretty much whenever we change something? In an educational, context Dylan Wiliam expressed it like this in his book, Sustaining Formative Assessment with Teacher Learning Communities:

“The collection of routines that teachers establish to get through the day are their greatest asset, but at the same time, a liability because getting better involves getting a little bit worse, at least for a while.”

Our day with curriculum leaders afforded the time to explore, through case studies drawn from the people in the room, where we get stuck and how to navigate some of those dips. We gave people opportunities to plan with team members, to immerse themselves in curated resources, enter into coaching and consulting conversations, and explore how a framework can be useful for analyzing change with.
The following are a few of the tools our colleagues helped us field test and used to do some problem solving and forward planning with:

As always, I learned so much from listening to other people’s stories. It was a rewarding day spent with thoughtful and caring educators.




Design thinking: in & out of the box

creative design center

ASIJ opened a new Creative Design Center this year. The new space provides a focus for students to develop a maker mindset, and it provides an opportunity to distinguish between design thinking and design technology. We chose to adopt design thinking because it is human-centered and action oriented. As David Kelley points out, “Being human-centered is at the core of our innovation process. Deep empathy for people makes our observations powerful sources of inspiration” (Creative Confidence, Chapter 1, para 1). Over the past two years, we have started to develop a common language to support students to think and work like this. Design thinkers approach and respond to situations in a particular way. They switch between different phases or parts of the cycle. These phases include discovery (immersion), making meaning (synthesis), brainstorming (ideation), and try it (prototyping). Collaboration with others and feedback loops are also essential elements of design thinking.

CAD buildingTeachers have been designing learning experiences that allow students to practice all or part of the design thinking process in different subjects and at all grade levels. This approach to learning is not new. For example, there are many similarities between this approach and project-based learning. We chose design thinking because of the focus on generating empathy for others. The intention is to introduce new strategies to students throughout their educational experience to help expand their capacity in think and act with creative confidence in each of the phases. Learning new tactics and having time and opportunity to practice the art of, “Noticing that something is broken is an essential prerequisite for coming up with a creative solution to fix it” (Creative Confidence, Chapter 4, para 1). Which bring me back to the new design center. Although design thinking is often associated with tangible design solutions (products and systems), ASIJ sees that it has wider applications and that it is complementary to other learning approaches, e.g. the research process, the writing process, scientific inquiry. For this reason, it is important that our focus is on the dispositions and mindset that all students will develop by working this way rather than limiting design thinking to our maker courses or spaces.

Why design thinking?

“Educational change depends on what teachers do and think — it’s as simple and complex as that.” 

Michael Fullan, The New Meaning of Educational Change. 2001, p. 115.

ASIJ began incorporating design thinking into teaching and learning a few years ago. Over the past two years teachers have thought about and planned at least one unit of learning that enables students to practice parts or a whole design thinking approach. Some teachers saw this as an exciting challenge, an avenue to develop in students a complex critical and creative mindset, others are not so positive.   

students working on projects

 For some, real frustration and angst has grown and now surfaces at the mere mention of ‘design thinking’. The very term seems to send their eyes rolling back in their heads. I care about how people feel so this has been something I’ve spent time pondering. Why the harsh reaction? Is it because the why ‘we are design thinking’ has either been poorly communicated or misunderstood?  

So why did ASIJ choose to implement design thinking? Well, it’s because we want students to have opportunities to develop a particular type of thinking, thinking that takes into account understanding other people’s perspectives through empathy. In addition, we want our students to be action oriented, and to take a problem-finding approach to engaging with the world around them. Design Thinking by nature takes a human-centered approach to problem-finding and solving, so it seemed a good vehicle to help nurture students and address some of the school’s three strategic objectives.

Students at ASIJ will:

  • Become adept at identifying problems and using innovation and collaboration to design and evaluate solutions
  • Take risks, explore passions, and pursue their personal paths with resilience
  • Develop the capacity to understand diverse perspectives

Yet, somewhere along the way those underlying goals have become muddled with the term ‘design thinking’. For some, the whole thing seemed faddish and jargony.  What to do to make things better then? The question of clarity springs to mind. I like the way Fullan frames clarity in the context of supporting educational change:

“Unclear or unspecified changes can cause great anxiety and frustration to those sincerely trying to implement them. Clarity, of course, cannot be delivered on a platter. Whether or not it is accomplished depends on the process.” (Fullan, 2001, p. 77).

Fullan goes on to argue that “effective implementation is a process,” and “clarification is likely to come in large part through reflective practice” (2001, p. 108). So perhaps that’s the ongoing challenge: how to create opportunities for clarification of why we are ‘doing design thinking’ that capitalize on reflection of practice and collegial conversations. 

More thinking required….

Wanted: High expectations for content creation 

in-school citations not enoughIt’s hard not to notice that the ‘project’ season has been kicking in over the past few weeks. I am all for alternative assessments and authentic challenges, it is just that I’ve started wondering about the timing, and if the kinds of things we ask kids to do is really on track yet. Here are a few questions I’ve been pondering:

How many teachers actually do a test run before setting project challenges/tasks for kids? Do we understand the technical skills required? I’m not sure it is fair to ask kids to do something that we can’t do ourselves. And, are we allowing sufficient time for skill building and to produce quality work?

As teachers, we aspire to make learning engaging and authentic. Which is why many projects rightly have aspects of content creation. It’s the age of the iMovie and ePub research paper! But, are the guidelines and expectations regarding the use of digital content really clear– and high enough? By this I mean, are we teaching kids to strive to create their own original content or are we assuming they can find on the web whatever they need and just cite it–because it’s for school. (How about exploring Fair Use? e.g. Fair Use and video projects.)

“Inside-school” citations are not enough

The school walls are thinner and more permeable than ever. The line between closed and open has become much easier to cross thanks to the digital tools and avalanche of content pouring into open virtual spaces. (David Price’s book, Open: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future, poses some compelling arguments about this.) It’s exciting to be a teacher and a student in this age. While new opportunities abound, it is up to us to set high expectations for our students about what and how they create. This means ensuring that our students learn the digital and media literacy skills needed to be truly fluent in an ‘open’ world.

Change knowledge and leadership

I am fortunate to work with principals that model leadership. An example from a few weeks ago was when writing consultant Penny Kittle ran a session for our 9th grade teachers about how to support reading and writing across disciplines. Both our HS principals joined in as participants, and continued conversations about the strategies we explored in the following weeks with individual teachers and the whole staff.

“understanding requires interaction”

One of the many insights I gleaned from Michael Fullan’s book The New Meaning of Change was what a powerful influence principals can have on change initiatives. Why this struck me as significant is because, although we expect principals to be leaders of change, the realities of their jobs means they can get swamped and side tracked by the day to day running of school.

Fullan points out that without visible, tangible support from principals for change initiatives teachers won’t adopt new practices. Yet, if administrators do some or all of the following, their agency for change can be huge. Do you know principals who regularly:
Visit classrooms to see what is happening?
Follow through on decisions?
Attend workshops and training?
Articulate challenges to show understanding of realities effecting implementation?


Could building houses have made me a better teacher?

I used to build houses. My husband and I spent several years buying and rebuilding homes. We got pretty good at it. I loved the work because I learned so much about building and engineering from start to finish. I learned from structural engineers and builders who helped me turn ideas and drawings into realistic, functional and beautiful buildings.

memories of building

Memories of building projects

I learned to think critically and collaboratively as I worked with skilled people to realize ideas. And I got my hands dirty at every stage; I jack-hammered foundations on a two story beach house, I became pretty handy with a nail gun working along side builders to frame a house, and I even screwed down roofing before storms came through. Getting my hands dirty provided me with new insights and a deeper understanding and appreciate for construction and design. Those insights continue to be of use to me as a teacher and educator.

Two projects I am working on right now are as equally exciting to me as building houses. The first is a collaborative course I have been working on with a Math and English teacher called Data & Rhetoric: Power of persuasion. It is an attempt to design a truly interdisciplinary course that crosses the fields of statistics, english and design. We floated the concept for the course over a year ago; it would be different in structure and execution from a typical high school course. What was conceived though long conversations and real uncertainty about whether the new model would even be allowed to fly is about to start in just over a month. As I compare building houses to creating a new type of course I see some similarities in the process:
  • we had to be able to visualize it,
  • we had to be able to help others understand it (talk, share, show),
  • we had to believe in it even before there was anything to show (class sign ups, curriculum mapped).
The second project is at a different point of conception. Our school’s action plan includes initiating capstone experiences for students. Where to begin? As I think back over the analogy of building houses I feel like we have already begun the work of envisioning capstone experiences by creating and exploring a number of prototypes and programs. During the last two years we have been tweaking our Independent Study model which has provided insights we can draw on. My hunch is that from those insights a new and exciting model for Capstone is already forming.


As we start to sketch out what our Capstone ‘structure’ looks like I imagine different pathways, alternative avenues, and most importantly, flexibility because not one size fits all. Our students have such diverse needs and interests–and some don’t even really know what they are interested in by their senior year–so we need to design something functional and human-centered to meet that diversity. We have our work cut out, but like all creative projects I am invigorated by the possibilities and potential.


I wonder if I will build better houses in the future because of what I am learning about creating new structures and learning experiences for students?