Part I of II: Designing Organizational Environments that Support ILEs
Over the past decade, a surge of activity has revolved around recreating learning environments that incorporate innovative elements to better support teaching and learning. These innovative learning environments (ILEs) are defined as spaces to support the transition from traditional, teacher-focused instruction, to active competency-based, student-centered ways of learning. For the past 100 years, classrooms have primarily supported one-directional instruction. However, in recent years teaching practices have evolved. Pedagogy changes over time and adapts to the needs of a diverse range of students.We can learn from schools that have successfully transitioned from traditional designs to ILEs with student-centered, multi-modal instruction in order to help school leaders implement key steps that facilitate more effective learning and better outcomes.
Recognizing that transitioning to new spaces and new learning approaches requires more expertise than just architecture, I recently completed graduate work at Columbia University’s Teachers College. I learned the history, theory, and application of organizational psychology with a specific focus in Change Leadership. During this time, I was introduced to Kurt Lewins’ Field Theory, B=f(P,E): behavior is a function of people and their environments. This theory posits that when the environment changes, so should the resulting behaviors. As an architect, environment can be defined as the built environment including spatial qualities, furniture, technology, and tools within. As a psychologist the environment includes the organization, it’s leadership, mission, culture, and supporting systems.
My graduate work research explored the organizational environment in a built environment that included ILEs. I focused on Tom Glenn High School, a school located in central Texas designed by Pfluger Architects.
The school’s principal, Arturo Lomeli, and I designed a two-part research approach that utilized an assessment survey developed from theBurke-Litwin Model for Organizational Performance and Change in conjunction with an analysis of the school’s change leadership process. From these two data forms, I was able to explore the relationships between organizational steps taken during the first year of opening the school and the achievement of behavior change.
In this Insight, I will review the assessment survey results, leaving the change leadership process analysis to be explored in a future post. Interview data collected from the school’s planning group, a group of staff and administrators who championed the change, showed clear alignment in four transformational areas:
- external environment
- mission & strategy; and
My key takeaway is that people are key. Hiring people who value continual learning and improvement, or possess a change-mindset to stay current with external changes, is the first step to achieving changed behaviors. Continued development of these skillsets spur growth.
Responses to the first question in the assessment survey regarding the external environment provided a clear indication that the right people are in place to lead transformational change at Tom Glenn High School. Fifteen out of 22 comments focused on the dramatic and continuous change occurring in the world of education, and the value of continually learning and improving, or having a change-mindset, in order to stay current with that change.
My analysis concludes strong leadership is required for success. Following Principal Lomeli’s example, implementing a consistent change process and clearly communicating the driving force behind the shift creates communal purpose. At Tom Glenn High School, the driving force was building a community that is bigger than the individual student or campus. This concept was described by planning group members as moving students beyond “academic excellence” to “evolving into a contributing members of society.” This definition of excellence, which is part of the school’s vision, allowed faculty, staff, students, and community to unite around a driving goal.
Mission & Strategy
Creating buy-in to the vision, at all levels, is vital. District- and campus-level leadership facilitated “buy-in at all levels” through regular, iterative communication of the vision across multiple methods and formats. The new direction of Glenn High School was understood by all stakeholders to be a journey, and possibly a difficult one, but one that was well worth the challenges along the way.
Lomeli’s first task was to build his planning team, which required the strategic hiring and reshuffling of staff. During this process, he shared the school’s vision with the candidate in the interview, and encouraged the applicant to consider his or her own personal values against the school’s vision. After hiring a new planning team member, Lomeli would introduce the new teammate and describe to the whole staff how that individual would contribute to the vision.
Lomeli and his planning team also executed an exhaustive communications plan to describe the vision of the school at each potential feeder campus; both middle schools and elementary schools, and at community meetings for parents and local businesses. During visits to feeder schools, Lomeli handed out tee shirts in the school color emblazoned with the Grizzly mascot, and introduced the hashtags #PaintLeanderOrange and #GrizzlyGrit+3, a direct reference to its culture framework.
This regular, reiteration of the school vision continued as students were intentionally introduced to the school’s future through a multi-day orientation at the start of school that specifically focused on culture creation. Additionally, Lomeli created multiple “artifacts of culture” that drove the vision home, beyond students and staff. When arriving at the campus, a visitor is first introduced to the Tom Glenn High School vision through the school’s address: Collaborative Way. In the parking lot, the mascot is introduced via strategically located signage. Upon entry to the building, banners and the school seal reiterate the vision at multiple points throughout the school. Additionally, lapel pins with the seal are awarded for academic excellence.
My graduate studies proved to me that culture endures. Tom Glenn High school is a safe culture for growth and risk-taking. A commitment to continual improvement provides a defense against resorting back to TITWWADI, or “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
For each challenge, the planning team sought not just the obvious answer but what could be more effective, with a larger impact and be more successful. They realized that in order to stay on top of a new and unstable environment they must be constantly questioning course of direction and going above and beyond. This commitment to continual improvement provides a defense against what British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion describes as basic assumptions, or resorting back to the past—the comfortable—and, in this case, traditional teaching methods. And this belief helped to define the culture of Tom Glenn High School.
Lewins’ Field Theory, B=f(P,E) is not wrong. However, the variables of people and environmenthave multiple facets. In order to change behaviors in new built environments, and benefit educators and learners alike, we need to carefully design the organizational environment to support the same goals as the built environment.
To learn more about my research, join me at the Transitions Research Symposium on September 14 in Grand Rapids, Mich. This event is sponsored by the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change project. Or, feel free to reach out to me directly to learn how your campus/district could benefit from this systematic approach.