Managing the narrative around learning space design

Space design has run off the rails. It is become the equivalent of three carts before the horse in too many classrooms. Neat, fancy and cute have been become the norm, but the reality is that decorating classrooms can actually have a negative effective on learning. For many, space design isn’t about accelerating modern learning, but about refreshing furniture so that everything has wheels. We have also reached a point where teachers are feeling guilty because their classroom doesn’t have the Pinterest pretty pop of the classroom adjacent to them, and this guilt creates a distraction and time suck from facilitating amazing learning.

We are also seeing greater disconnect between schools, parents and communities regarding space design. The mental model of the classroom has never varied so much between these three groups. It's time to reopen this conversation. This is the only way to avoid fad, support learning, and create spaces that maximize joy and engagement.

So where do we start?

School leaders need to reestablish the purpose of space design in their buildings. Shifting flexible furniture into classrooms isn’t an end goal—it's a small part of a big plan that will bring ownership, movement and choice to the learning lives of students. As space design becomes an essential part of the modernization work in districts (I would argue that it sits in parallel with instructional design and technology integration), leaders will want to make sure that all aspects of space design remain missional.

Design changes should remain centered on the mission of the school—the mission that is lived daily by all involved with supporting students. It is also important that learning remain at the core of the intentional design.

Classroom design often lacks the deliberate decisions needed to truly accelerate learning. Space either inhibits learning or supports learning. It is very rarely neutral. Start these deliberations by asking what are the verbs of the learning space and how do they tie together the instructional philosophy, the tools for learning, and the space in which the learning takes place? It is in this coherence that deeper learning can emerge, engagement and joy are maximized, and meaningful conversations about space design can begin for parents and community.

Avoid equating space design with test scores. Instead develop language that threads together modern learning and intentional design so that trust and understanding around this work can equate to support and funding. Without compelling language, your initiative can stall or fail. Some districts have used metaphor to drive purpose. They equate classrooms to nests, showing how both are designed to care, feed and prepare for flight. If all stakeholders in your learning ecosystem see space design in these terms, then it becomes easier for everyone to move forward together in common purpose.

Don't rely on emotional pleas ("Kids deserve it!") to generate public support. Use research to substantiate your argument. Choose 2-3 studies that showcase how intentional classroom design supports brain-based learning. Research from the University of Melbourne in Australia, the University of Salford and the ministry of education in New Zealand are all rich with ideas and successful outcomes. 

Take advantage of student voice—it can help break old mental models for parents and community members. Consider recording videos—90 seconds to three minutes in length—showing students learning in these environments or discussing how space design supports growth. These images help shape public perception and generate support.

Develop a microaudience strategy for communicating about space design plans. These audiences include taxpayers with no children in schools, business leaders, parents, community partners and students. Tailor marketing messages to each group. Tell business leaders how graduates are building skills that make them career ready. Give taxpayers who don't have children information to help them understand the purpose for modern classroom spaces. Generic messaging creates noise that rarely allows the message to stick.

And don't overlook site- and district staff audiences, including includes secretaries, nurses, custodians and central office team members. Plan your communication with them. Without the right language to discuss changes, comments like, “I’m not sure why they are doing that”, “It seems like a waste of money” or “The old classrooms work fine" can derail support. Create common language and a narrative about how learning-space design provides fresh opportunities for all students. Invite them into the discussion and make sure they have the information needed to address frequently asked questions.

Selling this message of change can be tough. In a time when information noise fills our lives, it is important to consider the 4Vs of message marketing for schools: volume, video, views, and visuals. All four will have an impact on efforts to rethink and shape space design.

Volume focuses on the quantity of the message that is distributed to each audience. Many times, a message is expressed 2-4 times in various media when it takes at least double that density to get noticed and remembered. You need to broadcast your message eight or more times so that the information is noticed, processed, and understood. Consider how often you fast forward through commercials, throw mail into recycling or send calls directly to voicemail. All of these actions create a barrier for school messaging.

Video is effective but underused by schools. Learning space design is visually engaging, and it lends itself to being showcased through video. Video isn’t a singular medium though. Video needs to be created to embed on static web pages, formatted for mobile and tagged and archived on YouTube for easy access. In addition, the length of video matters. Beyond 3-5 minutes, there is a significant decrease in the viewership of most videos. This means that multiple short videos are essential selling the message.

Video should feature before and after footage of the spaces that are being transformed. Include footage of students and teachers discussing the impact of the change, and highlighting benefits. Consider which social media channels that you want to distribute the video and make sure your video meets high-quality standards for light and sound. These make a difference in showcasing a feeling of excellence and intentionality.

Views are a measure of impact; they refer to the analytics of communication. How are you measuring the impact of your marketing strategy? Do you know what media is working--the number of impressions that your Instagram video is getting compared to the Facebook video that was boosted? Do you know where people are clicking on your website? Do you have a sense of the open rate for newsletters? Data-informed marketing can fine tune the hard work of crafting the message for schools. There is no reason to yell into the forest if no one is listening.

And finally, visuals. Visuals are also a key to marketing this work. We know that a picture is worth a thousand words, so limit the text in newsletter and on webpages. Static images, when video isn’t possible, are the best way to showcase the types of learning happening in your transformed spaces. They should be the first things visitors see when they enter your building. Visuals help break down antiquated mental models and tell stories that would otherwise be trapped within classroom walls.

As the positive trend to transform learning spaces continues, success will not be based on furniture selected or the joy of the students in the space. Long-term success will be defined by how well we can broadcast the message that success in today's schools comes was we pair excellent learning environments with authentic experiences that are accelerated by technology.

Robert Dillon, Ed.D, is the director of innovation for the School District of University City in Saint Louis, Missouri. He has the opportunity to speaker around the country on a variety of topics that support learning. His latest books is entitled: Leading Connected Classroom: The Heart and Soul of Learning. 

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