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Learning spaces: The subconscious teacher

6 min read


This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In the first of a three-part blog series, Lucien Vattel,  founder and co-director of the PlayMaker School and CEO of nonprofit GameDesk, explores learning spaces that cultivate the student, the child, the learner.

The spaces we inhabit have a profound effect on how we inhabit them. Space induces a particular way of feeling, of being. What are we saying to our children with we line them up in 5×8 rows facing the same direction toward a voice of authority? What do we say about desks that lock us in place, where the majority of movement within our gaze is eyes forward, eyes down? I remember my surprise when I walked into first grade for the very first time. The change from kindergarten to first grade was extreme. I looked at the arrangement of desks and thought, “what game is this?” It was a game I would play for the rest of my developing years. I was disappointed. I knew it could be better than this.

We look inside current learning spaces and look at the world; there is a big disconnect. It’s not reflective.We as a society have agreed by doctrine that our children will come together in a building and learn, and yet we allow our kids to be behind desks for a majority of their developing years. We evolve behind desks. Think of that! Students don’t need places to sit, listen and write. Instead, they need places to connect, explore, discover and relate. They need places of support. We spend over a decade being conditioned to receive and compete, imagine if space invoked us to support each other, everyday and in every way.

We need environments that help realize that within us there are unbounded treasures. We need environments that shine a light on our potential and provide opportunities to express ourselves. Schools at their heart should be human potentiality incubators. We need to think about what type of environment supports our own individual greatness. They come first, before college, before careers, before testing. The cultivation of the student, the child, the learner is all that matters. So the question becomes: What kinds of spaces naturally lend themselves to drawing out, rather than pushing in? How does one draw out what is within? And how do we enable one to feel confident enough to draw out from oneself all the magic that is inside. These are the questions of an educational space designer.

A few years ago, I found myself designing learning spaces for new school models of learning. The Playmaker school in Los Angeles became a canvas to explore these ideas. The school model was to make every day interactive, playful and creative. The space created needed to be versatile and functional for experiential learning across a broad spectrum of approaches: role-play, making and building, digital simulations, games, mobile apps, ideation and collaborative exploration. I thought about what experiences could happen in those spaces, extracting the qualities and characteristics of technology, space and teaching methods that could be applied to each space. We experimented with three rooms and asked ourselves, “What kind of room would provoke this way of being?”

A space for the birth of ideas

Imagine yourself within a soft, white room. The room feels safe, perhaps even feminine, not unlike a blank canvas or white egg. Bright, sloping whiteboard walls surround you so every inch of wall space can be drawn upon. Creativity is celebrated here. This is a fresh environment where ideas are free to emerge. Curved, stretchy chairs meet flexible tables, with writable surfaces. Both stand atop Astroturf; a sign of nature and an open field of exploration. The windows are Tetris-shaped and multicolored.

Photo courtesy of Gensler

The space acts as an open-ended explorative think tank for education, where kids can purposefully dream, explore and create. Whether launching school projects, openly exploring math and science concepts, constructing novel inventions or imagining innovative companies; this kind of a space symbolizes birth.

A room for adventure

What follows birth? Experimentation and adventure. Imagine a large room with a ceiling grid for hanging displays and dividers that can be sectioned off into small group exploratory spaces or opened up for large collaboration and presentation. It’s an exploration space, ideal for mobile learning, embodied learning, floor simulations and game-based learning where students freely explore a variety of content domains by interacting in virtual environments and one another.

Photo courtesy of Gensler

They role-play through different time periods, design their own galaxies, experiment with forces and motion. Here the room takes on a different theme of exploration by simply changing the digital content and room arrangement. In this space, educators are not positioned as lecturers, at the front of a class. Rather, they move throughout an exploratory space as a guide and advisor, listening in and offering advice as needed. Expression and collaborative interaction is championed in this learning environment.

The makerspace

After exploration and experimentation, creation follows — the manifestation of cultural artifacts, inventions and product as well as the building of confidence through real experience. A space that enables easy movement between individual and group work allows machines to be built, inventions to be launched, games to be programmed, or prototypes to be created. The space adapts elegantly with various multimedia stations, such that all students are motivated to physically manifest their intuition — whether individually or by virtue of collaboration.

Photo courtesy of Gensler

The idea that a school’s function is one of purely academic development should be retired entirely. We have a responsibility to foster each student’s inherent genius and draw out his or her natural brilliance while maximizing emotional growth. Schools have an opportunity to create spaces that represent a more complete trajectory of growth; intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically. What if the foundation of schools was to support students holistically? Imagine if every space represented an emotional step in your life. What would these spaces look like? What colors? What ideas? What structures? What tools? What objects of learning would be placed in front of you, every step of the way? Can we imagine a progression of tools and psychological spaces that reflect the whole development of a human being?

Lets us imagine it. Let us create that reality.

Lucien Vattel is CEO of nonprofit GameDesk. He also is the founder and co-director of the PlayMaker School, which takes a new approach to the way we teach and learn. Previously, Vattel was the associate director for Game Research at the University of Southern California for its CS Program in Games. While at USC he was the co-founder and designer of the master’s and undergraduate Game Degree programs. He can be reached via email at [email protected]

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