Immersive Research & Inspiring Active Learning

Project: MA/MBA Classroom
Task: Design a learning environment for the new Design Leadership program
Challenge: Create an adaptable learning environment to facilitate an active culture and invite constant iteration
Team: Me – Learning design is a full contact, team sport

We were a new program with ambitions of changing the world, or at least designing it better. We needed a space to match. Visions of Google offices danced in my head. But before I could install a floor-to-ceiling slide or a shared bike system for a 22’x30′ room, I needed to step back.

A quick side note, this post will be one of the few times I will use the singular. During this project, I took on the design of the classroom myself. I wanted to know the solo-project process. The ideating challenge and contesting my own entrenchment made for some wonderful learning moments. Mind you, I did make sure to bring in expert advisors along the way. The advice from others was invaluable. Ultimately, the process reminded me of the power of teams, perspectives, and development of ideas.

PERSPECTIVE: On the inside looking in

Over the preceding months, we had lost learning time to rearranging bulky tables as we moved from group work to discussions to prototyping. Class participation seemed a bit feeble at times. Teaching moments centralized around the single white board in the room. We struggled to find a surface to hold Post-Its. I decided to find inspiration in our pain points and design our new learning space with intention.

I needed to understand and document our culture and habits. I was excited to don my ethnography hat, even if it was for my own community. I spent the next few weeks tracking room activities, moods, and our time learning together. I documented cultural artifacts, time stamps, the movement of objects occupying the space, possessions entering and leaving the room, and cultural norms. Interviews with past and future instructors shed light on intentions, expectations, and adaptations. Wiefling’s North Star helped us work as a group to figure what our culture and direction could look like in the context of our physical space.

DIRECTION: Finding our North Star

After distilling my data, three cultural guides became evident; we needed a space that was playful, active, and safe. To avoid falling into preconceived notions of a playful, active, and safe space, I worked with classmates to think wrong about each. I also bolstered my brainstorming with some good ole fashioned secondary research.

My research brought me to spaces known for fostering collaboration and exploration. Interviews with data-driven designers of coworking spaces provided precedent to break from expectationI also looked back to a time when we all first learned to share and participate in active learning (wasn’t kindergarten fun?). The Third Teacher inspired me with their mix of ethnography and design. Connecting with Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft at the was not only an outstanding conversation but also a great perspective on iteration.

A wonderful moment of insight came while working on my favorite short-rib recipe. Kitchens are an embodiment of everything I was working to achieve — an inspiring space with open access to resources.

ACT: Turning data into form

With inspirations, insights, and research in hand, I set out to begin playing. Napkin sketches became conversations over coffee. I used the project as an opportunity to learn 3-D rendering (also a reminder of the different lessons and limitations each form of prototyping offers).

I designed a space to adapt to the changing needs of the program. Wheeled furniture invited movement to accommodate different working styles and encourage engagement. Desks were nimble and adaptive. Chairs were high for mobility and activation. Mobile workstations broke the confines of the room. Murals from local artists provided a sense of place and connection to the city. Raw materials encouraged messiness and iteration. Usable wall space decentralized learning. And best of all, it was fun.

NEXT: ???

My favorite part of the project was the inspiration. As a next step in my understanding of the designed environment, I will be exploring how physical artifacts in a space might work as knowledge management tools to inspire creativity. I am excited to learn more about Australian Aboriginal tribes and how they connect art, learning, and visual language to physical space.  Stay tuned.