Feb 27 2018
Personalized Learning

#ICE18: Redesigning a Classroom Is Not About Being “Pretty for Pinterest”

Modern learning environment experts Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger share how the movement is changing thinking in education.

Simply adding technology to a classroom doesn’t make it an innovative space. Leaders looking to shift learning must think more holistically.

“It’s imperative that classroom design is driven by the desire to create personal and authentic learning experiences for students,” says Tom Murray, director of innovation for Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “It’s about moving teaching practices from stand, deliver and regurgitate to practices that are engaging, relevant and personal.”

Eric Sheninger, senior fellow and thought leader with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), agrees.


Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray share their expertise on modern learning spaces. Photos courtesy of Linkedin

“How does the technology actually improve on what we’ve done in the past?” he asks.

Murray and Sheninger, co-authors of Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, published by ASCD in 2017, will be featured speakers at the #ICE18 conference in Schaumburg, Ill., from Feb. 26-28, where they plan to answer that question and many others. They took some time to talk with EdTech prior to the conference.

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EDTECH: When you talk about the “modern learning environment” in your book, what do you mean?

SHENINGER: The modern learning environment is the combination of digital pedagogy, the latest technology and a changing learning environment. Where they all intersect is where the MLE is. The goal is to let kids learn under similar conditions to what they’ll see outside of school. That means instead of preparing kids for something, we are preparing kids for anything. We don’t know what the jobs will be 10 years down the road. In the end, students need to be able to answer these two critical questions today: Why am I learning this, and how will I use what I’m learning?

MURRAY: The modern learning environment is one that mirrors student empowerment. By designing a learner-centered environment that’s built upon flexibility, the traditional, industrial setup of desks in rows can be overcome.

In Learning Transformed, we refer to such design as the “cemetery effect” and it’s imperative that classroom design is driven by the desire to create personal and authentic learning experiences for students. To be clear, learning space redesign is not about being pretty for Pinterest, it’s about design that impacts the brain, and ultimately, learning.

EDTECH: What are the education trends that have led to the modern learning environment?

SHENINGER: The learning environment has changed. One major development is the internet itself and its evolution. Schools don’t have to be the sole dispensers of knowledge. And it’s not about knowledge anymore; it’s about students showing that they actually understand what they’re being taught. It’s not about focusing on the test or the curriculum. Kids don’t care about that. They want relevance. They want authenticity and creativity. They want learning to be personal.

MURRAY: In the past decade or so, there’s been a growing understanding of the need to transform classrooms on many levels. Educators have been asking, “Why are we doing things a certain way? What does the research say?” Simply put, does your classroom space match your desired pedagogy? If not, there’s a disconnect.

One notion that has gained traction is that of “flexible seating.” However, to be clear, flexible seating is not about buying all new, pretty furniture that’s identical. It’s about leveraging flexibility for the student — and thus empowering their voice and choice in the process.

EDTECH: What are the common roadblocks to implementing a modern learning environment?

SHENINGER: It’s often the status quo: Not enough time, not improving on the achievement gap, not enough money, too many mandates, too much tradition — the usual list of reasons why progress doesn’t move forward. And there’s one answer to all of that: If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you will make an excuse. Our fixed mindset clouds our judgement and ability to enact change, so as educators we need to challenge that and step outside it.

MURRAY: The main roadblock is a teacher-centric mindset. Teaching is not simply about content delivery. Teaching is an art and the greatest teachers have far more to offer than their delivered curriculum. Our fourth key in Learning Transformed is that learning spaces must be learning-centered and be based on evidence. It’s the student, not the content delivery that matters most.

EDTECH: How can educators get around these roadblocks?

SHENINGER: We need to be open to ideas and we need to know where to go to find good examples of what works in the classroom. The internet is the biggest resource we have. We can connect with other educators. We can ask questions, we can answer questions. We need to be in that space of collaboration, talking to the true experts, the ones out there doing the work. Social media is like a giant search engine that we can tap any time.

For me, I got connected with it in 2009. My story started with a student who told me school was like a jail when I took away his device. This incident really struck me. I had to adjust my mindset about how technology fit into the lives of my students and in the classroom. Around this time, I first got on Twitter. It really opened my eyes to what was possible as an educator. I developed a greater belief in myself, my students and our school — that we all had a role in changing culture for the better.

MURRAY: First, I always say the best place to start is to ask kids. As educators, we must empower student agency and support their owning of the process.

Second, what are the skills that we want kids to come away with? Once identified, reflect on the type of space that would best foster those skills?

Third, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to change everything right away. Start small, even simply start in one space. It can be a common area, a library or a space with flexibility. Think strategically. In Learning Transformed, we highlight 17 ways to “design on a dime” and to be creative in the redesign process. It can be done!

EDTECH: Speaking of budget, how can schools with limited funds work toward the MLE?

MURRAY: Financial resources are a real issue for many schools. However, it’s important to note that a lot of change can happen with little to no budget to support it.

One no-cost example of learning space design from the research is where Eric and I point to the importance of the notion of being gender neutral in the classroom. For instance, do both boys and girls feel comfortable in the environment? Or, is it stereotypically male or female? It’s obviously vital for students to feel comfortable in a given space, yet environments that are stereotypically male or female may do a disservice to some students, and thus finding a general neutral balance is key.

The same could be said for cultural sensitivities, etc. These are not necessarily budget-oriented conversations — but ones of awareness and mindset.

EDTECH: What role do devices have in the MLE?

SHENINGER: Devices and technology are appropriate if they are aligned to a specific learning target. But you need to have criteria set up for device use. Does it allow for better research? Is it making students more productive? Is it keeping them safer online? If the technology doesn’t meet all your criteria, don’t use it.

You want a strong connection to a learning outcome in order to use tech successfully. The best way to think about it is through this quote from Michael Fullan, “pedagogy is the driver, technology is the accelerator.” How does the technology actually improve on what we’ve done in the past? Is there a learning target that the technology supports? Are we getting kids to think on the highest level?

EDTECH: What role do parents play in the MLE?

SHENINGER: Parents have to be advocates, supporters and cheerleaders for these changes. How they were taught when they were kids is not enough, they need to want more and better for their kids. We need parents to be partners in this process. Parents need to unlearn and relearn to get a better handle on what kids need to be successful for their future.

MURRAY: It’s important that teachers and administrators communicate with parents as the classroom changes are happening. Community engagement and collaboration, our seventh key in Learning Transformed, is really important. Parents can be the most supportive advocates when they are involved and part of the process.

Follow EdTech’s coverage of #ICE18 on the official conference landing page.

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