Mar 19, 2018

Capturing The Spirit of Wonder in Schools


By Christian Long

I’ve been playing a single 1-min Internet video of little kids splashing in a puddle for most of the day. And I’m captivated. Dressed in bright colored full-body rain suits and rain boots, a gaggle of pre-school students wanders a gravel forest road until they encounter a giant rain puddle. Everything in their world stops. One child enters the puddle: exploring, laughing, running. Then another follows until all joyfully do so. They then circle back to do it again and again. To the viewer, it is a remarkable moment of splashing, laughing…and pure wonder-fueled discovery.

The viewer first asks the obvious: Where are they? Where are they going? Where are the teachers? What are they actually supposed to be doing? Then slowly, almost magically, one’s imagination becomes more curious, like the kids themselves: What are they making sense of? What are they feeling? What is this sparking in the the nearby adults? Where else do they get to explore without boundaries or adults guiding every choice? What are the long-term effects of ongoing playful discovery?

As viewers’ questions unfold while watching this video of ForestKids students in Nova Scotia, Canada, it becomes less about the ‘what’ and more about the ‘why’. And as a designer, this shift makes all the difference in the world.
Over the last 15 years of collaborating with a number of really passionate and talented school design / architecture teams, working with a wide array of schools with a variety of project needs and aspirations, I have seen a profound shift in how many are approaching the design process. While many of their questions still focus on easily measured / easily priced ‘objects’ – square footage, materials, furniture, 3D printers, etc. – more and more of our clients are starting the design process by asking a different set of questions entirely:

Ø  How will this process prepare our kids, teachers, and community for the ways they will teach, learn and collaborate in the future?
Ø  Beyond spaces, what else must we re-imagine and re-design?
Ø  Can the design process itself be the way our school creates and collaborates over time?

In other words, as important as the physical spaces are, there is a rising sense that ‘how’ we come together to design new learning environments may be the most valuable asset of all. And perhaps even more, the spirit of wonder and curiosity – more so than theory and certainty -- must be front and center at every design step along the way.

While I am extremely proud of the ‘end products’ my WONDER team creates with our partners, I am most inspired by the ‘messy process’ of discovery that has become central to everything. At our founding three years ago, our WONDER studio intentionally shifted away from the traditional A&E / business process of focusing on the ‘building’ as the end product.

In its place, we invested in a human-centered, multi-disciplinary design methodology committed to uncovering what people and communities ultimately ‘need’ so they can thrive as learners, collaborators and human systems. It has become less about efficiently guaranteeing predictable ‘projects’ that are spreadsheet-driven and more about ‘expeditions’ that uncover the unpredictable.

Like professional design studios IDEO and NoTosh, university programs like Stanford University’s or MIT’s NuVu, or a rising number of K-12 schools like the Nueva School and Mt. Vernon, we have embraced a ‘Design Thinking’ process. Everything we do is anchored in ‘empathy’ via purposeful ethnographic methodologies and ‘prototypes’ via rapid development techniques to re-think and challenge all of our assumptions within every project.

In other words, we want to occupy a mindset of wonder and curiosity as long as possible. This means teaming up with film-makers, scientists, technology entrepreneurs, policy makers, and others that do not normally ‘design’ schools so that we can challenge every assumption we have.

This means not asking kids and teachers to be ‘school designers for a day’ via traditional workshops but instead teaming up with kids, teachers, and community partners to take on real-world design challenges beyond the project itself in order to make real community impact (and simultaneously observing ‘how’ teams instinctively use spaces, tools and each other in real time).
And it means getting involved in projects far beyond architecture to broaden our insights, whether it be organizing multi-school leadership retreats to explore the future of education, working with national foundations to create multi-year films, or leading long-term teacher professional development processes. Perhaps the process leads to a better building. Perhaps it leads to a decision not to build a building at all. Or perhaps it leads to re-imagining ‘school’ in ways never before imagined. 

Of all of these efforts that have had the biggest impact on how our clients engage the school design process – and on us as a design firm – the most striking are the year-long / multi-year-long teacher professional development design expeditions we regularly are asked to lead. Generally, there are three reasons why a school team makes such an investment:

·         1. They will renovate or build in the future, so they want to amplify their educators’ ability to solidify the non-negotiable cultural / behavioral characteristics that must underpin all future design choices.
·         2. They have already begun the architectural process and realize that educators must now collaboratively experiment and test new behaviors in order to fully leverage emerging spaces.
·         3. They realize that if they only design new spaces without re-thinking everything as a unified ecology – spaces, culture, brand, time, schedule, curriculum, technology, partnerships, professional practice, etc. – they will never fully realize the value of the architecture itself.

Structurally, we employ with the following elements:

Learning Design, Not School Architecture
As much as we want to eventually focus on the design of spaces, the focus of the teacher experience can’t be about solving that problem. Ideally, we can use it as a spring board, but it’s never the explicit focus of the overall experience. Instead we want to find the underlying questions worth exploring, whether it is agility, collaboration, professional identity, a maker culture, etc.

Design Thinking Methodologies
While we are very experienced with the traditional architectural process, we are equally experienced as educators. We intentionally use ‘Design Thinking’ methods so that teachers and educator teams can ‘hack’ everything we do and bring elements back into their own day-to-day practice. Also, we want a process that uncovers the unexpected, that approaches design challenges in oblique ways, and naturally requires unexpectedly multi-disciplinary teams that choose to be curious rather than certain.

Multi-Disciplinary Cohorts
While the team may be made up of educators from the school, they are never the teams that typically gather together. We do not start off with resumes or department lists to create the teams. Instead, the teachers are given a design challenge to respond to and team selections grow out of looking for a creative blending of backgrounds and yes-and attitudes.

Multi-Semester / Multi-Year Experiences
Each team agrees to work together for a minimum of one year, made up of two school semesters. This allows the first semester to be an ‘ethnographic’ process of empathy-driven discovery, both about themselves as professionals and the overall school itself. Similarly, it allows the second semester to be focused on making a positive impact on each member and the school itself. In an ideal world, the first cohort will be followed each semester by a new cohort. And over time, each cohort will take on some facilitation / mentoring of the future cohorts so that the process becomes embedded in the school culture itself.

Solo and Group Design Challenges
Together we end up exploring many things that arise along the way: childhood, peer collaboration, trans-disciplinary curriculum design, faculty lounge interactions, hacker and tinkerer mindsets, supporting parents, emergent professional practices, grading, plausible futures, artificial and virtual reality, storytelling, faculty meetings, social-entrepreneurism, creating cultures of curiosity and innovation, imagining entirely new school models, etc. Inspired by discoveries like these, each cohort member takes on a semester-long design project and the entire cohort takes on a group project as well, all of which has the dual goal of expanding individual practice and creating the conditions for the entire school to thrive. 

While such a shift away from the traditional architectural process has a profound impact on the eventual design of spaces and places, it has a larger impact on amplifying the non-negotiable values within a school community. It creates opportunity for people to truly ‘beta-test’ their future experiences.

As a designer, approaching ‘school architecture’ in this way is no small change. It is akin to shifting from asking a client practical questions – such as how much space and storage do they need in their classrooms and studios; what kind of furniture do they want in their new library or community spaces; and how many 3D printers they want to order for their new maker space? -- to engaging a more oblique line of design inquiry:

Or, looking out more into the future, it becomes less about what the building can and should look like, and more about asking a school community (and oneself) about their aspired behaviors and rituals: how can multi-generational collaboration take place equally both on and off campus; how can we test for and prototype an emerging culture of just-in-time creativity and curation in the ‘corners’ and ‘nodes’ of the school; what if only 20% of our future students come ‘to campus’ each day, while we simultaneously serve 1000% more students then we ever have in the past; what if we stop designing existing classrooms as studios in the traditional sense of ‘school’ but instead position our students and teachers as empathy-fueled change agents out in the community at large?

We live in a world education where everything is changing right in front of our eyes. No longer is it even understood what it will mean to ‘go to school’ in the future, nor what it will mean to ‘design a school’. As educators, distributors, manufacturers, school and community leaders, and designers of future learning environments, this means we are being challenged to adapt and shift on multiple fronts in order to serve our students and communities in ways we cannot possibly predict. To that end, this is a remarkable 'design challenge' to embrace, equally intimidating and extraordinary in nature.
And that brings me back to pondering rain puddles. Or more specifically, it brings me back to pondering how our own design process can learn more from kids splashing joyfully in rain puddles -- where perhaps the spirit of wonder and the unabashed desire to discover is the governing ethos– rather than in the ways we’ve historically created buildings called schools.

About the Author: 

Christian Long is an educator, school planner, plausible-futures seeker, and passionate advocate for innovative learning communities, having spent the last 20 years teaching, coaching, leading experiential education programs, and designing schools.

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