It is accepted practice in education to make sure that we involve the voices of students and teachers in the decision-making process. Very few believe that one person making all of the decisions results in the best outcomes. This holds true for learning space design as well, but sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves of why the authentic inclusion of more voices garners greater results.
The central concept for my book The Space: A Guide for Educators is that we need to design with and not for students and teachers. If readers take away only one message, it is this one: Student and teacher voices are the first step to making a modern learning space a reality. In education, we solve too many problems for students and for teachers, and the solution is often half-baked, misaligned, and poorly received. Instead, we need to commit ourselves to using a with mentality, even if this sometimes means a longer process or some messiness.
Before you embark on redesigning your learning spaces, consider these top reasons to make sure everyone is included in the process.
1. More People Means More Ideas
The best ideas are rarely trapped inside the head of one individual. They are often a melding of the ideas of many people. This means that the more ideas that are thrown in the ring during the design process, the more likely the best ideas will emerge. Teachers and students have incredible insight about how their space should be shaped to maximize learning and we should be leveraging that insight.
2. It Ensures Everyone Is Invested in the Ideas
Ownership is the key to success in many areas of education and this holds true for learning space design. When people move into a frame of mind that a design or project is their idea, the changes taking place have a greater chance of success. Students need to feel and believe that the design incorporated their ideas. Teachers need to feel like the spaces have been optimized for their students’ needs and that the spaces were designed to support their evolving teacher practices. Ownership of a design project should feel like owning a house — there is always work to do to make it better, but at the end of the day, there is pride that it is your house and your road forward.
3. It Helps the Design Project Gain Widespread Support
Shared development of a project ensures that the project will last beyond the initial championing of the work. We need students to become the champions of learning space design in their schools. Without their voice in the design phase, it can be artificial to ask them to be spokespeople on the power of active learning design. And when students’ and teachers’ design opinions are taken into account, you will see the positive energy of the projects diffuse throughout the entire learning community. Gaining this widespread support is essential, as some of the people championing the project may leave, initiatives may change, or new ideas might take priority over space design.
4. They Can Help You Identify What Might Go Wrong
The concept of premortem is important for an effective school or district design strategy as well. Using this concept, your team can imagine the project has failed and work backward to identify potential problems or issues. By bringing the voices of teachers and students into the mix early, you can ask tough questions about how the process could fail or not reach an optimal level. Not only does premortem allow all voices to get in front of potential issues, it also removes the opportunity for people to complain later because everyone is given a forum early in the process to get everything on the table.
5. It Helps Create a Shared Language and Communication Plan
Many schools and districts consider the importance of talking to the public about learning space design and its effects on learning with the community, but of parallel importance is the internal marketing strategy surrounding space design. Does everyone in your organization know why the design changes are happening? Can they articulate those reasons when speaking to people outside the organization?
Bringing more voices into the design process creates a natural flow of communication about the purpose of the project. It also ensures that more individuals are using the same language from the beginning of the process. Many space design projects fail to get off the ground because the internal communications strategy isn’t solid from the beginning.
A Cautionary Note About How to Bring More Voices into the Learning Design Process
Voice isn’t a check-box activity. It can’t be just a moment in the process that allows someone to say, “Now that we’ve listened to everyone, we can move forward with the design.” Voice needs to hug the process. It needs to be iterative in nature and something that is sprinkled throughout. Voice also isn’t something that means “one person, one vote” for every microdecision. Students and teachers don’t have the knowledge to make the best decisions about all things, but we should push to have more ideas on the decision table than less. Finally, teacher and student voice is a part of a dialogue process that is divergent in nature. It opens the process up to new ideas, fresh concepts, and growth. Don’t be afraid to let the path diverge. At some point, a smaller group, with care for the ideas of others, will make the final decisions in a more focused discussion process.
If you keep the idea of involving others’ voices from becoming cliche in your design process, you can instead allow it to fertilize the process. This will help you bring amazing new learning spaces to life through a robust design process that deeply values students and teachers.
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Dr. Robert Dillon
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