Operation Redesign

by Sean A. Riley, PhD

When our Innovation Lab officially opens in early April, two things will happen.  First, students, parents, and visitors will be blown away by how inspiring it is and how effectively it transforms teaching and learning.  Complete with collaborative counter-height desks, a huge interactive smartboard, cutting-edge technology, and plenty of maker space, the Innovation Lab makes possible forms of teaching and learning that are simply impossible in the traditional classroom.  Second, everyone will see our old classrooms through a new lens.  They will seem dated, boring, and most importantly, limiting. Here are some pictures of our current classrooms.  They are orderly and functional to an extent, but they are very difficult to rearrange, in most cases uncomfortable, and decidedly 20th century in their aesthetics. Our outstanding teachers have been able to do amazing things in these outdated classrooms.  Imagine what they could do if they had spaces that worked for them rather than against them.

21st Century Classrooms for 21st Century Learning 21st century learning is different than 20th century learning, and it is time that our classrooms reflect that reality.  While the classrooms of the recent past put a premium on conformity, passive reception of knowledge, and individual assessment, the classrooms of today emphasize creativity and collaboration, active learning and critical thinking.  When it comes to the ultimate end of education, the Stony Brook School remains as committed as ever to Christian character formation and rigorous academics (see Embarking on the Ultimate Quest).  When it comes to the means by which we do that, however, the game has to change.  Teachers no longer have to devote the lion’s share of their time to transmitting information from their heads into the heads of their students.  Students now have information at their finger tips, but they do not know how to discern good information from bad information, true opinions from false ones.  Instead, teachers now can focus on formation: formation of character, formation of relationships, and formation of skills.  21st century students do not need more information; they need more ability to discern wisdom.  They do not need more lessons in transcribing lectures; they need to learn how to listen, evaluate, reason, and speak.  They do not need more practice sitting up straight; they need more opportunities to create and innovate. Our classroom spaces communicate our values as a school.  They invite or deter students from certain forms of behavior.  They inspire or they squash creativity.  My contention is that what our classroom spaces are communicating and what we are communicating about values are out of step.  We tell kids to collaborate, but we put them in heavy chairs with fixed desks.  We ask them to be creative, but we surround them with white cinder block walls.  We encourage them to engage actively in class, but we put them in postures that encourage disengagement.  We continue to do this not because we lack the institutional will or vision to transform our classrooms but rather because we lack investment to align our reality with our dreams.

Design Thinking Starting this term, we are taking a step of faith, faith that investment will follow an exciting vision.  I have organized a group of students to volunteer their time to engage in design thinking.  They will follow a process pioneered by Stanford’s Institute of Design, the famous d.school.   Source: https://joeyaquino.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/want-a-crash-course-in-stanfords-design-thinking-here-it-is-for-free-pt-1-empathy/ First team members will empathize by observing their peers in class and out of class and surveying them about how they best learn and how our current spaces contribute to or detract from learning.  The Operation Redesign team will try to see our spaces with new eyes, paying attention to details that have escaped their notice until now. Second, they will define the problem.  Einstein once said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.  Before we can provide solutions, we need to get really clear on what the problem is that we are trying to solve.  In pursuit of the problem, design thinkers ask lots of “why?” questions that seem to have obvious answers.  Why do we have desks?  Why have separate classrooms for separate disciplines? Third, we will ideate solutions, leaving nothing off the table.  At this step in the process, no ideas are crazy.  Design thinkers often ask questions that start with “What if…”  What if we removed seating from the classroom?  What if our classrooms were more like coffee shops? or gyms? or campfires?  What if students had more control over the arrangement of furniture?  What if…?  Why do we need classrooms in the first place?  Only after exploring many (perhaps hundreds) of ideas can we confidently narrow down solutions to a few. Fourth, we will take those solutions and begin to prototype.  Prototyping is a process of mocking up solutions for testing.  Typically prototypes start out cheap.  Furniture design, for example, often starts with paper and cardboard models, then progresses to full-scale versions made of cheap building materials, and then advances to models that look like finished products. Fifth, we will test our prototypes, subjecting them to criticism and going back to the drawing board if necessary until we get it right.

How to Get Involved If this sounds exciting to you, you can get involved by supporting the design process through donations.  Contact the development office and mention Operation Redesign.  If you are a professional architect or builder who wants to donate time to give us counsel or offer services, we would welcome the benefit of your expertise as well.  Change only happens when people with means invest.  Partner with us!

Links to articles on 21st century classroom spaces and furniture.

Listen to Sean Corcorran from Steelcase explain the design process they used to create some of their innovative classroom furniture here:


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