Innovative Thinking and Environments for Today's Learners

CEO, One-to-One Institute

Environments for Change

Earlier this year, Quentin Hardy wrote about the “Monuments of Tech” in the NY Times.  He inspired my thinking about his scenarios in schools. 

At the Facebook (FB) offices in Menlo Park, California, no one has an office. Space is mentally and emotionally reconfigured to encourage experimentation, risk, trial and error and personal and group analysis.  The unofficial motto is ‘hack. We’ve learned the downside of malicious hacking activities – but at FB they’ve adopted this in the engineering definition meaning to remake something with a novice’s “passionate disregard for the usual rules”.  The ecosystem supports this hacking mentality by providing support for the engineering mission even when the lights go off, batteries die or devices are faulty.  Everything is designed to change thinking and to keep people coming up with new ideas and new solutions.

At Facebook, just as the Facebook home page design and functionalities frequently change, furniture is often replaced without notice.  People are initially annoyed – but then quickly adapt and move forward.  The culture created is one of expectation of change and one’s ability to adapt and be flexible within that kind of ecosystem.

At Twitter, informal meetings are encouraged via a low stress environment and open-plan work areas.  Files and furniture are on wheels so workers can take up the location of their choice and have their work tools readily available.  There is a pervasive sense that ‘nothing is permanent’.  They have the belief that ‘we must all change, all the time.  However,  architecture demands that we must also represent ‘something lasting’.  To my thinking that means the Twitter folk know that change is of the essence and that within that knowledge and experience is the stability of understanding that this is the permanent structure of what they do.

Google’s offices are really a gigantic testing/data center.  Every move they make relative to employees (and customers), is driven by extensive data gathering and analysis. Everything they do requires affected employees to evaluate the friendliness, efficiencies and overall experience for what just happened.  At Google, it’s not just about writing code, creating or work speed. It’s about what you ‘experienced’ emotionally in what you did  and how much energy you had when you got home to spend quality family time.

Disclaimer here - I’m not comparing education to business operationally or otherwise. What I’m doing, and what I always do, is fiercely find lessons learned and expert practices that can serve as jumping off points for how to well transform schools to best serve students.  Schools are grandly known for their traditions, lockstep schedules, rules, predictable expectations and the like.  We’ve been at the school reform business for so long with so few lasting results that I love to examine how other organizations transform and determine if any of those strategies can be applied in schools.

Lessons for Schools

There are examples of schools doing uniquely flexible things with schedules such as flipping, blending, etc.  There are 1:1 and BYOD programs and a never-ending stream of technologies injected into the traditional school environments.  The ‘key’ word here is ‘traditional’.  For these ‘different’ approaches to be real game changers, they need to leapfrog authentic systemic shifts.  Unfortunately, in most of these settings, it’s really same-old, same-old but with new, shiny stuff.  However, what if, within those environments –  teachers had a major disregard for the usual rules?  What might happen?  No doubt the school would be turned upside down with turmoil that would distract from day to day activities. What would happen when that dust settled? What lessons would be learned? What takeaways would there be?  Scary?  No – intriguing and adventurous. This is just what is needed to break down barriers, walls and self-imposed road blocks to real transformation.

When I was a high school principal, some teachers wanted to hold classes in the school’s courtyard from time to time. They did. What chaos ensued!  Teacher peers complained that it was a distraction and disruptive for everyone.  It resulted in a whole school dialogue about how to ‘solve’ the problem.  Long story short, we created so many student-focused disruptive practices that they became the ‘norm’. Teachers had the freedom to activate learning experiences for students that they themselves initiated using many different spaces in and around the school. Heck, we had many faculty meetings on the lawn in front of the place.  It became an organic learning world for all of us.  Teachers and students brought ideas forward for improving all manner of student experiences.  Each idea was presented, researched, collaborated upon and decided upon as a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ based on the benefits for learning outcomes.  We changed ‘time’ and personalized learning through new scheduling, student advisor time and a whole school ‘care team’ and brought about critical conversations on students’ success.

What if education administrators sought waivers for the state, federal and local mandates, teacher contracts, seat time, etc., in order to institute an anytime and anywhere learning environment that was student-driven?  I’ve been in schools where the bricks and mortar are extinct. Students work beyond classrooms in spaces that are conducive for small group collaboration.  The coming together of the whole group happens as needed. Students lead their learning through the power of 1:1 technologies and the ways in which teachers have activated the learning experiences in advance. The whole school and beyond is a learning sandbox.

A high school principal in a suburban Detroit high school instituted a daily schedule that was different every day!  On Monday’s, students attended periods 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. On Tuesdays they followed 3, 1, 2, 6, 4, 5.  Their schedules changed up every day through Friday.  To know where one must ‘be’ next, students and teachers had to ‘think’ about what day it is and ‘recall’ what schedule for that day to follow.  Imagine the advance planning students and teachers had to do to be ready; right day, time and place! Yes, teachers were annoyed with what seemed to be a useless ploy. But the school culture was vibrant and smart and it became a cultural phenomenon.  Students excelled academically. The parent community was highly involved and celebrated their school.  Of course the schedule had little to do with those outcomes.  It was the personal and interpersonal dynamics that were created and the culture of things changing everyday that drove individuals to be in tune and aware to be together.

Next Steps

There is so much that can be accomplished with ‘thinking’ about how to create a learning environment. By doing so, you create an environment most conducive to the expected outcomes of student achievement. You create readiness for engagement in a profoundly changing information age. You personalize and maximize every students’ school experience. That ‘thinking’ can become strategy and then a tactical plan for shifting the entire system.  Many of us have been on this road less traveled for a long time.  Join us!!

Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of One-to-One Institute, has served education for 38+ years  in top level, key decision-making roles at state and local levels. Recognized as an international expert in education technology, Wilson is a frequent writer, presenter and interviewee. Among her many publications, she co-authored, “Project RED-The Technology Factor, Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost Effectiveness” which is the most broadly used research around successful implementation of 1:1 technologies in schools.

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