Reflections on Creating Culture and Arranging Furniture

Some of the furniture we ordered months ago arrived today, and it reminded me a little of the changes that happened when the students arrived. We celebrated the newness and the fulfilment of our wishes, and then we wondered how we were going to blend the effective elements of the old configuration with the opportunities offered by the new pieces. What should stay, what should go, and what is best for the learning environment as a whole?

One of the most profound and foundational challenges embedded in designing a new program like Innovation Lab is creating its culture. It was all well and good to research and debate, share and vow, prior to the opening, but when the students actually arrived, they transformed the theory into practice through their needs and goals. However, some essential challenges remain. How do you create the same place for success and growth for the dreamer, the dilettante, the intellectual, the questioner, the curious, the disenfranchised, and the rambunctious? And where will the new couch fit?

Designing the layout for the program has been influenced by the work of some of the top educators in the field like Tony Wagner in Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, Paul Tough in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Ron Ritchhart in Cultures of Thinking and Making Thinking Visible, Larry Rosenstock, founding principal of High Tech High, and countless others. We have been trying to create a culture where students actively question and pursue answers, where they invest in their own learning, and risk failure in order to achieve growth. And often that process challenges us in ways that can feel as uncomfortable or precarious as it does exciting.

The students, like the Innovation Lab furniture arrangement, are in a state of transition. Teachers and students alike are incorporating past experience into a new framework of Project-Based Learning. At the heart is a personalization of teaching and learning that is vital to the program, but for some of the students, they have struggled with aspects of scaffolded rigor, balanced independence, and supported collaboration. There is a reason it’s sometimes called growing pains.

While they are all in different places in their growth process, I’ve noticed that for many, the first step toward success is self-awareness. Students begin to realize their strengths and weaknesses, points of frustration, or need for support. When they begin to pursue solutions to their problems – whether within the course or outside the content, they start to find their success. The third step begins when they acknowledge indirect rewards, because small achievements fuel their enthusiasm. When one student can teach his group how to apply the ‘Ken Burns Effect’ to a picture in WeVideo, he is empowered. When another student grabs a marker and explains the nitrogen cycle in graphic illustrations on the whiteboard table, she cements her own learning as well. We have countless stages to go, but we will take those steps together.

At the moment, the furniture has been placed, but not arranged. We realized that we need the students to tackle this project. We have given them pieces, and we can coach them to try new configurations, but they will need to explore how the setup of the Design Studio contributes to the learning environment.

Our students are the designers. They are the innovators. They are defining the culture of InLab, one piece of furniture at a time.

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