In a series of short posts and videos from Fast Company, we see how Google is using space to create collaborative working and learning environments. I watched several of these, and see enormous parallels to how we can transform the K-12 learning process by re-imagining the use of physical space. Here are some of my key takeaways from the Google experience and how it relates to schools:
1. Common spaces can, and do, bring diverse groups of people together. At nearly every school I have ever visited, adults want more common space to meet, collaborate, and learn. But just because a space is common and open does not mean it will be used. If you build it, “they” will not necessarily come. Innovative organizations create a cultural ethos that embraces and rewards people for actively engaging in common shared space. And diversity is critical: a common space is not actually common if it is co-opted by a single group of people. Does your school have a space where students, teachers, administrators, and staff are all welcome? How can you encourage them to see this space as a place for engaging, productive work?
2. Creative, collaborative learning should be playful and fun. Few students report that school is fun. Yet all of us, regardless of age, can have fun learning and working with others. The Google garage is “not competitive and non-hierarchical”; it looks more like open gym night where teams form and re-form based on interest, expertise, and the freedom to be there. Elementary school learning spaces tend to embrace play and fun…but that disappears for older students. Innovative educators share with Google this pedagogy and practice which recognizes that space/time for fun leads to more, not less content mastery.
3. Crowded spaces promote collaboration. Google found, apparently by accident, that overcrowded spaces encourage active collaboration; it is hard to ignore the person next to you when you are literally rubbing shoulders with them. Schools have evolved into highly possessive organizations; we want “my” classroom, quiet in the library, dedicated studios for each art class. We don’t share well. Rather than building expensive new buildings, imagine how your school can re-purpose your existing footprint by varying the density of crowds in certain learning space/times. If you increase density in one space, density will decrease in others (another reason to de-emphasize student/teacher or student/classroom ratios as planning drivers in our schools).
4. Space and time are symbiotic. The Google garage space increases the rate of creative interactions amongst employees. Schools have evolved to see time and space as separate resources when in fact they are two faces of the same resource. We must construct space/time for people to work together. If they have time in their daily routine they will congregate in the common space; if they have a common space in which to gather they will become more efficient in meeting the creative goals of the organization. Innovative schools ensure that pedagogy drives space/time, not the other way around. They turn space/time from a limiting factor to a leveraging factor in learning.
5. Tools, toys, materials…not just for engineers. Maker spaces, design studios, and innovation labs are increasingly common in schools that seek to give students and teachers the opportunity to imagine, design, build, prototype, fail, and try again. They usually include tools, materials, and space to build physical “stuff”, which is great. The Google garage concept has tools and materials for lawyers and accountants as well as hardware wizards. How can we apply these Dewey-based experiential opportunities to other interest areas beyond robotics, visual arts, and engineering? How do we incorporate rich studies of literature, law, justice, language, or economics in a maker space world?
6. Flexibility. Every piece of furniture has wheels. Every table and vertical surface is writeable. Storage bins are moveable, not built-in. There is no front or back to the room. People do not sit in the same place or the same configuration every day. Rigidity in the physical space breeds acceptance of a routine; flexibility asks us to think of each day as a new opportunity to imagine learning in a new way. This is the easiest and cheapest way for schools to leverage the power of space on learning. Furniture wears out and we replace it with flexible options; the walls need paint so we use Idea Paint. Why should a classroom look different than a common space or design studio?
7. Google goals: “Learn, create, make”. School goals: “Connect,create, learn”. The goals of Google and the goals of a school are not the same, so what takes place in our spaces should not be the same. Google’s ultimate goal is to invent new products and services which will make money for the company. School’s ultimate goal is to develop our students into self-evolving learners. But we can learn from each other. How might you imagine the Google garage concept at your school? One thing I see missing is visual connection to other knowledge creators around the world. What if your school’s common space had mutiple screens for formal and informal video chats with students, teachers, professors, company employees, or just informal collaborators around the world? What if our classrooms and common spaces were nodes of a connected system of physical and virtual interdisciplinary “coffee shops” that expanded the idea of “school” to include anyone else on the planet who wanted to share in the creation and management of knowledge? Wouldn’t that be an enormous leap forward in our forward-leaning vision of what “school” is?