Jun 02, 2020

The Classroom as Ecosystem - Back to Our Roots

Kate Rancourt
Creative Director, Learning Environments

The Classroon as Ecosystem - Back to Our Roots

We've all witnessed how massive disruption from the coronavirus pandemic across society has exposed many systems and environments that demand change. And how social distancing uncovered the roots of our humanity - our deep need for connection. Coincidentally at One Workplace, we’ve been exploring the broadest definition of connection and the many ways that place can either enhance or hinder human relationships. We realized Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs offered the framework for building a hierarchical guide to prepare organizations to reopen their doors and address the concerns, needs, and hopes for their employees in a post COVID-19 work environment. Turns out our connection to nature is so primal it deserves close consideration, and that insight drove our new learning environments model.

Being in nature returns us to the environments where we feel most at ease, and reconnects us to our innate sense of creativity. What if classrooms could feel more like natural environments, and help make us happier, more connected, and kinder learners and educators? What if returning to our roots, through connection to nature and biophilic elements, could redefine what learning spaces could be?

Biophilia is the belief that humans possess an inherent yearning to connect with nature. This theory has been tested and employed in many environments, in healthcare to accelerate patient healing or in business to encourage employees to work in a more engaged manner – but learning spaces have remained untouched for the past century, only beginning to be reimagined in the past decade or so.

When you close your eyes and imagine a classroom space – perhaps your child’s or one from your own past - more than likely you’re picturing heavy, immobile elements made of plastics, wood and metal or vinyls in bright, primary colors. Posters, information, flags and artwork are strewn about the space in the attempt to create feelings of uniqueness and hominess. Your imagined space probably lacks diversity, doesn’t offer much student choice or control, seeks equality and compromises equity. We invite you to envision a different type of space that links learners to the outside world, a space filled with exploration, diversity, community, and challenges that ultimately allow new summits to be reached.

In reimagining the learning space, we begin with the notion of an ecosystem of ‘regions’ to create diversity and deliver the benefits we encounter in natural environments. Region by definition is an area or division, especially part of a country or the world having definable characteristics but not always fixed boundaries. The absence of “hard defined boundaries” while true in nature, we believe might also be possible in the classroom. Creating an ecosystem of regions that work in unison and bleed into one another based on the needs and requirements of the learners, will encourage autonomous and personalized learning experiences.

We suggest four regions might create the ecosystem of the new classroom, each with a defined purpose, benefits and suggested activities.

Exploratory Region

The Exploratory region would encourage learners to harness their own curiosity. We learn and develop through our curiosity and exploration, naturally curious explores from the moment of birth. Since 65% of jobs in the future don’t currently exist, the future of how we will work is unknown and will be created by these new learners. What is known today is that exploratory research, flexibility, and adaptability to change are skills that learners and thinkers will need in the next decade and beyond.

For this region we draw inspiration from the unknown world of space travel. This Exploratory region might include different perspectives, furniture used in ways unconsidered in original design, components that can be built or changed by students, and interesting organic patterns. Mobile tools and resources can help to build the space students will need to thrive and engage their imagination.

Hive Region

The Hive region provides a space to enhance community and habitat. We are hardwired for connection and understand that work in the future will require intangible skills like creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. Learning interdependency, developing the ability to rely on others, and playing multiple roles helps to foster team-like atmosphere and contributes to building a culture in the classroom. The Hive region might include communal furniture, circular sessions, brighter colors, and a more open, expansive space to ebb and flow in groups.

We draw inspiration from honeybees and their hive culture for this region. Each has a specific role and job to do in order for the community to thrive, to build a blended home/workplace that lasts for generations, and to intuitively know when it’s time to split off and create a separate community as needs change. The adjacency of the Hive to the Exploratory region is vital, to enable moving easily between community-based tasks and autonomous, exploratory activities.

Reflective Region

The Reflective Region offers space for learners to examine new learning and how it applies to everyday life. The power from thinking about thinking, or metacognition, helps learners assess their own abilities. Answering questions like “how did I successfully learn this and what didn’t work out well?” or “how might I be able to expand my knowledge in this space?” builds the tools to enable students to recognize their strengths and weaknesses as learners, writers, readers, test-takers, group members and more.

Water is the inspiration for this region – an element in nature that is constantly changing, moving, adjusting, yet can also be strong and still. The region might include reflective surfaces to bounce light in interesting ways, whiteboard surfaces, upright furniture, visual and acoustic privacy with some ability for teams to gather, and comforting, ambient music.

Restorative Region

The Restorative region offers learners the opportunity to regain sense of purpose, seek refuge, and reset. Regardless of grade level or position in the education system, student life can be daunting. Navigating Standards of Learning tests, SATs, college applications, AP classes, understanding complexities of human relationships and any other personal situations that may occur, all while going through puberty, cause levels of stress and anxiety in high school students that catches a lot of attention these days. Proactive mindfulness and wellness are important initiatives not only in the healthcare system, but also corporate space, supported by the invention of apps like Headspace. If students learn to identify signs of anxiety and the power of seeking refuge early in life, they can build toolsets to manage and reverse those feelings.

The restorative region might mirror many natural settings, as exposure to nature can help reduce anger, fear and stress. This region might include soft handed materials, subdued colors, natural fibers and textures, floor pillows for grounding, softer scents, headphones for meditation music, and higher levels of visual and/or acoustic privacy.

We are convinced we must reframe our perspective. See learners first as humans with powerful relationships to nature, who crave autonomy and answers to their own questions, before thinking about them as students, then we will build deeper understanding and meet their biological and psychological needs. Appreciating our roots in nature, connecting to the aesthetics of nature and fostering a natural ecosystem of regions with different though related purposes, will help to evolve a new set of learners, educators, and positively impact our collective future.

Watch 10 minute overview video presentation for UDL-IRN here.