How Do We Define a Space for Learning?
I believe that learning happens everywhere – in places we want and think it should happen, and in places we do not traditionally associate with or have little expectation for it to happen.
Imagine this: on a beautiful summer day at the Minnesota Zoo, a family talks to a zoologist about a nearby giraffe. As time passes, the curious giraffe slowly approaches the group and the staff member calmly and carefully begins a feeding session for the patrons. The informative session completely captures the attention of the entire family; all the while the long-necked animal hovers above them and regularly leans down to gnaw plant stalks from their hands.
The zoologist explains where giraffes live in the wild, how much food they eat, who their predators are, how tall they get to be, how much they weigh, how their knee joints work, and the length of their tongues. On that warm sunny day, in a space with no walls and with an abundance of sunshine streaming down upon these “students” at the Minnesota Zoo, that family learns all about giraffes in an impactful and long-lasting way.
The idea that learning – real, meaningful learning – can and does happen outside the classroom is part of the work of Diana Rhoten from the Social Science Research Council. In her video featured on Edutopia, Ms. Rhoten states that the “role of libraries, museums and after school programs is not only to help that kid identify their interest, but progress through it.” This would suggest the learning that occurs within these institutions is not just a wonderful “get out of class for the day” extra, but that it also provides meaningful educational tools, and needs to be a vital component of our traditional educational programs. The spaces in which we experience those impactful learning moments may not be sitting in a desk staring at a whiteboard.
Each student may have a different definition of the space in which he best learns. The challenge, as educational designers, is to identify those non-traditional spaces and intersect them with the curriculum of traditional spaces to obtain a broader reach to the learning style of each student, independently and as a classroom whole. Traditional educational models can and should take cues from our community partners (museums, libraries, zoos, etc.) so that learning can be better defined as a process before we think about space.
For example, the examination of learning methods led educators and designers for Jordan Middle School to create goals centered on immersing students in hands-on activities and project-based learning. The team built a concept of “Einstein labs” from these drivers, where students will be able to move, create, build, and shape just as much as read, write, listen and discuss. The labs took shape as spaces around the goal of enabling these activities, around using advanced equipment and technology as a part of the learning process, as well as enabling visits from business partners for direct collaboration with students.
If you are like me, the lessons you remember most originate from interactive, hands-on learning in fairly non-traditional settings, like a zoo, a museum or a science center. Just imagine how we could impact the future of education of we continue to innovate and create some or all of these experiences within a school.