New York City, Summer 2011. I was excited to be joining a force of Teaching Fellows poised to tackle the opportunity gap in NYC. I began my summer school assignment feeling a healthy mix of zeal and terror. I was about to go live. The challenge? Get a group of straggling eighth graders excited about science.
Room 230. I enter. My students are seated in clunky desks — or are they chairs? Let’s call them desk-chairs — uniformly lined up to face the SmartBoard.
I wanted to get my students talking. To kick off the summer session, I had come prepared with clear and actionable directions: “Point to your partner. Turn your legs to face him or her. Partner A, the partner closest to the door, will be the first to share. Get ready to talk in 3, 2, ready? Talk.” With the word talk, I snapped my fingers.
Our first discussion was as clunky as the desks. My students looked awkwardly at one another and a few reluctantly slid their feet in the general direction of a partner. The remainder of my students turned their heads and settled their chins into their palms. Several students questioned who would serve as Partner A. One student raised his hand, possibly to ask which direction was left. Another started sharpening her pencil.
As much as I wanted to teach 21st century skills like communication and collaboration, there was only so much I could do when every student was facing the back of another student’s head.
(caption) A static classroom environment traditionally found in NYC public schools.
That’s when it hit me: Learning needs have changed in the 21st century. Yet, every day, over three million educators in this country are forced to make do with the factory-model classrooms of the early 20th century.
What might 21st century learning look like? For one, it’s student-centered. That means curriculum that engages students in meaningful and immersive problem-solving. Learning is individualized, and we build systems to support student initiative, interest and needs. Also, it’s collaborative — we foster communities of students who learn from each other and grow together. With this, we need spaces that allow for both communication and reflection.
To achieve this, I hack my classroom. By hacking, I mean making the most of the infrastructure I’m given.
We need learning environments that meet — and adapt to — our group and individual learning needs. I started to create classroom maps, and taught my students to shape their own learning space. Having studied geography in college, I find it intuitive to optimize my classroom layout to meet my intended learning objectives. When students work on different tasks or with different people, their environment should support that. Gradually, my students got used to shifting around furniture and taking ownership over their space.
In October of 2015, attending HIVE Hackathon at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the journey of room2learn began. I met my co-founders, Jane Zhang (Harvard GSD) and Fernando Trujano (MIT). Combining forces between education, technology and design, we launched a platform to allow educators (like me) to share the ways in which they’re creatively using their space. Why? We wanted to simulate the natural convening between teachers — in a place dedicated to talking about space—and allow this to lead into conversations about learning.
Design is so much more than aesthetic. At room2learn, we’re trying to build the infrastructure around “this is the problem I’m facing” and “here’s how I use my materials to meet this need.” As a result, we also work one-on-one with schools to custom-tailor their spaces to learning and teaching needs. We understand that design is important and schools run on tight budgets, so we make good design affordable.
Very naturally, good teachers are good designers. We design curriculum, learning experiences and systems (think of the organizational systems at play in your favorite elementary school classroom). We’re shifting to new paradigms and pedagogies, the way we’re interacting with students is changing. Our static spaces just don’t work. It’s time. Let’s activate our design toolkits to elevate the design our physical spaces to learn.
Grace O’Shea is a co-founder of room2learn and former New York City public school teacher. As a 6th and 8th grade science teacher, she used design thinking at the classroom and school level, leading her public middle school towards a future state design. Grace co-founded room2learn