Adventures on Learning & Space in California

One of our LEQ members, Emily Bell, reflects on her adventures on learning and space in California.

In late September 2019, a group of 32 educators, administrators, designers and architects travelled to California, USA as part of the Lutheran Education California Learning Tour. The weeklong tour included site visits, workshops, and presentations at schools, universities, and workplaces that were in the midst of exploring innovative approaches to educating students from kindergarten to adulthood.

Traveling from San Diego, to Santa Cruz and San Francisco, the tour visited four High Tech High Campuses, Stanford University, Monte Vista Christian School, Design Tech High School and the Google Offices in San Francisco. The students, staff, and administrators from each organisation provided candid descriptions of their journey toward delivering students with an education that developed the skills required for life beyond the school grounds. It was often admitted that they hadn’t got everything right, but that it was only through testing innovative approaches to curriculum, pedagogy and learning environments that they were able to discover what worked (and collect the evidence to back it up).

As I reflected on the range of learning environments we visited, I asked myself the following;

The majority of the learning environments had four walls, writing desks and stackable chairs, whiteboards, projectors, one teacher and 20-30 students….so what was so different?

The answer was somewhat unexpected; the innovation within these spaces did not come in the form of open-plan spaces, agile furniture or cutting-edge technology, but the way in which the occupants utilised their learning environments. Ownership, personality, connection, belonging, inspiration, representation and exhibition was layered onto these spaces, much like an artists’ blank canvas. Classrooms, breakout areas, hallways and gathering spaces were strewn with student projects, artwork, class pets, posters, trinkets, murals, equipment, and resources (of-course in between the obligatory whiteboards, projectors and windows). Each space was individually decorated to reflect the teacher’s personality, their student’s interest and the subject they were teaching, which resulted in a unique environment within every learning space.

When listening to our student tour guides, the benefits of creating unique and dynamic learning environments became obvious. From the moment a student walks into their classrooms they are able to see their teacher’s personality within the learning space, forming an instant connections that blossomed into their teacher becoming their life-long mentor and friend. Students were able to not only recite, but also show the tour, the project that had the greatest impact on their educational journey. This exhibition of student work allowed creators to reflect on their own projects, as well as providing inspiration to other students as they walked through the halls. There was scarcely a specialist facility in sight; no university-standard science lab, performing arts hall or film and TV editing lab. Instead, teachers were conscious of the advantages and limitations of their learning spaces, re-inventing them to suit the subject or project they were exploring.

The tour provided me with a greater understanding of the role both designers and educators play in the inception, development and outcome of learning environment design. Designers or educators in isolation could not have created these spaces. Instead it was through a collaborative effort, which saw designers develop spaces that functionally suited the pedagogical and practical needs of the school, upon which educators layered personality, decoration and inspiration to create a learning atmosphere that supported the emotional, intellectual and social development of the students. 

Article & images Emily Bell, Towill Design

This page last updated: Thursday 14 November 2019