Jul 12, 2019

2019 EDspaces Winning Classroom Design – A Behind the Scenes Interview with Stephen Gower, Demco Design Supervisor

First in a 6 part series featuring the winners of the EDspaces 2019 Classroom Design Competition. 

EDspaces learning environments serve as vehicles for classroom experimentation, with sessions taking place in classrooms designed by top architects, designers, and space planners. This gives attendees first-hand experience of modern approaches to learning through innovation in planning, design, and products and are a unique extension of learning for participants. Learn more at http://www.ed-spaces.com/education/classrooms/index.cfm

Classroom Name: Cultivate. Transform. Flourish.

Design Team: Demco, Inc. and Plunkett Raysich Architects, LLP                     

Vendor partners: ArtLine LTD, Community, Connectrac, Freshcoast, Forbo Flooring Systems, Interface, MooreCo, Muzo, Nora Systems, Professional Audio Designs, Inc., Smith System, Whitney Brothers

What was your concept in designing this classroom?
Using biophilic-inspired design, our classroom offers a rich integration of nature throughout the learning environment. The room is organized into three distinct zones: the forest edge, the clearing, and the glen. Entering the room through the forest edge, guests will find a zone of soft seating elements, tactile tables, and interactive display boards, along with living walls of green plants complemented by a natural imagery backdrop. This multisensory space opens to the clearing at the center of the room, where a variety of flexible seating, work surfaces, and media tools offer the ability to adapt the space for individual, small-group, and large-group learning. Integrated power throughout supports learners’ technology needs.

The edge of the glen on the far side of the room features larger tables and a private group setting for students to engage away from the active learning flow in the center of the room. Materials throughout the space have been carefully chosen to support focus, learning, and well-being by mimicking natural environments and making connections to our natural world.

What role does technology play in the space?
Technology is integral to the learning environment within our classroom. Multiple display screens support the variety of different learning modalities and different group sizes. Innovative screen technology allows for mirroring of presenter information, as well as sharing of work by smaller collaborative groups. Presenters will have the ability to select their presentation location and organize the room to fit their presentation style. An innovative, active acoustical system driven by a series of concealed speakers further supports the flexibility of presentation within the classroom. Digital amplification and sound support allow for customized tuning of the space. 

How does the design and technology plan encourage attendee interaction?
The classroom is organized into three distinct zones that create multiple organic spaces. These spaces encourage interaction for small- and large-group learning by using adaptable, mobile, and reconfigurable seating, work surfaces, and media tools. Users can quickly and easily rearrange for spontaneous collaboration and large-group learning. Learning zones are supported with a Connectrac underfloor power system that provides power throughout the space, with mobile Powerballs further distributing power at the user level. Digital content is shared through one primary monitor and additional smaller monitors, promoting digital interaction and visual collaboration for different group sizes.

How does the choice of furniture impact the space?
The variety of seating and work surfaces throughout offers users a choice to work where they learn best and provides the flexibility to accommodate different sized groups. Our seating solutions include organic Beach Stones and low-level Indie lounge platforms with rocking seats that promote informal collaboration. Height-adjustable Hierarchy Grow Stools are complemented with Bebop and Totem upholstered stools that promote movement, mobility, and student choice. Hierarchy Enroll Tablet Chairs act as satellite elements that students can move freely through the space during the day. Playful Planner Studio Benches pair with Studio Tables and create robust spaces for small-group making and collaboration. Connect Lounge Seating combines with Mix Stools to offer tiered seating heights, which promote different ways of working and assist with sight lines across the classroom.

What do the flooring choices say about your classroom?
Our flooring selections revolved around choosing products and companies that are eco-friendly. Interface has long been a leader in sustainable products and biophilic designs, and their Moss Carpet was the inspiration for the color palette. From there we turned to Nora rubber and Forbo linoleum for the same reasons. These conscientious companies produce products that are made in a resourceful way and can be recycled at the end of their useful life. All of these products are also quality commercial materials that are easy to maintain and do not require waxing or harsh chemicals for cleaning. The floor pattern was developed from the organic nature of the Moss Carpet and created organically around the furniture zones. Functionally, the soft surface was placed in the quiet learning zone and the hard surfaces were placed in the play and create zones.

How will this space work for presenters?
Our room setup will allow for quick changeover of speakers. Technology, while flexible and innovative, will support standard digital interface protocols. The primary presentation area (where the largest digital display will be) will have two portable podiums for presenters to utilize as needed. As the furniture in the room is mobile, each speaker has the ability to organize the room as he or she chooses.

What do you see as the largest benefit of being chosen as a design team winner?
We are honored to be chosen as a design team winner. Creating this biophilic classroom provided another opportunity for Demco and Plunkett Raysich Architects to collaborate and to illustrate that learners can benefit from educational environments that take a holistic approach to learning. Along with showcasing for educators what’s possible inside their spaces, our hope is that we also inspire them to feel confident that their learning environments can support modern teaching methods while being flexible enough to change and adapt to the future of education.  

Stephen Gower leads Demco’s design services team. He is an experienced furniture, product, and interior designer with a background in designing educational products and impactful educational interiors. Stephen has 20 years of design experience, including five years of international experience at Demco Interiors UK in England.

Stephen holds a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, in furniture design from Brunel University in High Wycombe, England. His past awards include the 2017 EDspaces Classroom Design Winner, awarded for “unique spaces designed by leading architects and designers in the field and outfitted with the latest innovations that make learning spaces come to life.”

Jul 11, 2019

Research Insights for Setting Up Powerful Learning Environments

By Melina Uncapher, Babe Liberman, and Judi Fusco

You’ve probably heard about the “learning sciences,” but what is this research field and how can it help educators?

Learning sciences research — which draws from many academic disciplines including neuroscience, education, developmental science, linguistics, psychology, and sociology — focuses on how people learn, investigates novel approaches to teaching and learning, and designs for educational environments to promote effective learning. Learning sciences research can aid educators in selecting instructional strategies, developing curricula, and creating learning spaces.

The learning environment is an important equity consideration, as equity gaps often stem from different opportunities in the places in which students grow up. How safe, nurturing, and stimulating an environment may affect a child’s brain development.

When children are born, their brains are optimized for all environments. As they grow and develop, their brains undergo a process of synaptic pruning, removing connections that are not necessary for the environment where they live. In the schematic below, you can see that the older brain (the brain on the right) has fewer connections, and that is because it has pruned away connections that were not consistently needed for its environment, in favor of making strong connections for experiences that were consistently encountered while growing up. Thus, this older brain is more efficient than the younger brain (on the left) because it has been optimized for its environment. 

Context matters for student learning, so those who design learning environments — including architects, education leaders, curriculum developers and teachers — can benefit from incorporating learning sciences research into their work.

Keep reading for three learning sciences insights, and associated design considerations, for setting up research-based environments to support powerful learning for the full spectrum of students. These teacher strategies will help you be a resource for the best possible learning environment.

1. Students learn well when they feel safe and connected.

To thrive at school, students need to feel that they are part of a positive, supportive learning community. Feeling safe and connected at school can reduce students’ anxiety, allowing them to focus their attention on the learning at hand.

Trauma-Informed Design
Childhood trauma results from emotionally painful or stressful events and is often associated with lasting mental and physical effects. Unfortunately, such trauma is commonplace: nearly half of all children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as parental divorce, death, or incarceration; being a victim of violence or witnessing violence in their community; or experiencing economic hardship. Many students who have experienced trauma view the world as a scary place and may have trouble engaging in everyday activities, including participating in learning activities in the classroom.
The good news is that trauma-informed practices, such as teaching coping skills and building caring relationships between teachers and students, can benefit all students, not just those who have experienced traumatic events.

Teacher Strategies:

      Begin class with a breathing or mindfulness exercise to acclimate students to the learning environment.
      Set and stick to a consistent schedule and classroom routines, informing students in advance about any upcoming changes to their schedule. When school is predictable it feels safe. Post the schedule somewhere prominent so that students can refer back to it.
      Designate a “calm down corner” in the classroom, so that students always have a safe place to visit to refocus and recharge until they are ready to rejoin the group. Deck this space out with cozy seating (bean bags or pillows) and quiet, independent activities (tactile toys or books).
      Explicitly teach social and emotional skills, like empathy and kindness, and encourage students to practice using these skills in multiple contexts (during group work or on the playground).

Positive Student-Teacher Relationships
It can be challenging for teachers to build authentic relationships with each of their students, but these connections matter. To grow and persist through challenging learning experiences at school, students need teachers who know them as individuals; who care about them, have high expectations for their success, and understand what they need to succeed. Teachers and students who have different cultural backgrounds may experience difficulty connecting, so teachers should practice culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) to help all learners. Practicing CRP requires teachers to understand their own cultural background, make a point to learn about the backgrounds of their students, and incorporate the personal and sociopolitical issues that impact their students and communities into their teaching.
When teachers are able to build such stable, trusting relationships with their students, this connection can promote students’ self-worth and sense of belonging, allowing them to be confident and valued in the classroom.
Teacher Strategies:

      Foster connections with students by opening up about your own hobbies, pets, and family members, and by encouraging them to do the same with you. Designate a gallery space in the classroom for students to show off photos of their families or special memories.
      When teaching students from a culture different from your own, discover culturally appropriate ways to get to know them. Learn about how students from different cultures may interpret directions, feedback, and discipline to create an atmosphere that guides and supports them appropriately. Build an inclusive classroom by displaying artwork or poetry from a variety of cultures, and books featuring diverse characters.
      Communicate positive and high expectations (related to classroom behavior and, especially, learning) for all students. Explicitly remind them: “I believe you can do it,” and prominently display student work so they can take pride in their achievements.
      Ensure that each student has an equitable opportunity to participate in class by rotating the students who are called on. Allow sufficient wait time for students who may need more time to formulate responses. Work to invite students with language differences, and those who may be less comfortable speaking in class, to participate in other ways.

2. Collaboration and social interaction can be powerful learning experiences because they encourage deeper processing and engage the “social brain”.

Students can be highly tuned to social dynamics, particularly during the transition to and through adolescence, and research shows that collaborative and relational interactions can drive learning. Harnessing this social drive in the classroom can take students further than they can go alone. Working collaboratively towards a common goal can encourage students to discuss, think about ideas they might not have considered, and learn more than they would if working individually. Since collaboration isn’t suitable for every learning task, educators can help students identify opportunities when working together is most beneficial.

Fostering Teamwork

Create a classroom environment that nurtures positive peer relationships so that students feel included in the learning community and understand how to work together to solve problems.

Teacher Strategies:

      Promote collaboration and exchange of ideas by structuring projects to require shared learning and co-creating, rather than splitting tasks among group members.
      Encourage students who are working on teams to get to know one another to better understand each other’s perspective. To help students work together in more effective ways, it may be important to have discussions about cultural differences. As students build stronger relationships with fellow team members, they can move beyond superficial questions to ones that are deeper and more challenging.
      Ask students to take the perspective of others (e.g., the people who you are teaching about in social studies or literature) to help students tie the learning to themselves and to a broader perspective.
      Invite students to teach each other. The process of preparing to teach is a powerful way to engage the social brain, whether or not students end up teaching the material! Teaching others often benefits the tutor the most, so be sure to give all students the chance to be tutor as well as tutee, or to compare notes on the lessons they prepare.

3. The entire environment, from space to temperature to lighting, can affect learning.

It may be no surprise that elements of the physical environment can play a role in determining whether the classroom will be conducive for focus and learning. For example, exposure to sunlight and views of nature from the classroom have been shown to boost student achievement, well-being, and behavior.

 Consider the Physical Space

Teacher Strategies:

      Incorporating flexible furniture — lightweight or on wheels — can support flexible instructional goals and gives students choice in where they work to empower them to take responsibility for their learning. The best arrangement of furniture depends on the task at hand: More interactive tasks benefit more from interactive arrangements (semicircle and clusters), and independent tasks from independent arrangements (rows).
      Try to keep the temperature between 68- and 74-degrees Fahrenheit so students are comfortable and able to focus. No thermostat? Have blankets and small fans for students to use.
      If your classroom has less natural light than you’d like, replacing lighting with blue-enriched or full-spectrum bulbs may improve students’ cognitive performance.
      No windows with views of nature? Take your class for walks outside and have plants in the classroom to get some of the benefits of nature.

To learn more about the learning sciences, check out the following resources:

      Culturally Responsive Teaching Blog - Hammond
      e-Learning and the Science of Instruction - Clark and Mayer
      The ABCs of How We Learn - Schwartz
      Visible Learning- Hattie and Yates
      Developing Minds in the Digital Age - Kuhl et al.

Melina Uncapher is Assistant Professor at UCSF and CEO & Co-founder at Institute for Applied Neuroscience
Babe Liberman is the Project Director, Research Communications at Digital Promise.
Dr. Judi Fusco is a Senior Research Scientist, focusing on STEM Teaching and Learning, at Digital Promise.

Jul 10, 2019

Fear: The Big Inhibitor of Innovation and Transformation

By Prof. Edward D. Hess and Dr. Donna Murdoch

Momentum is growing in the corporate world — more and more companies are realizing that the convergence of advancing technologies will fundamentally change how we live and how we work.

This realization has led some leaders to initiate either a digital transformation or the building of an innovation system. In many cases, the ultimate objective is to “win” — beat the competition by increasing the speed and quality of human learning in order to attain the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance in concert with advancing technologies.

Questions that are commonly asked include: Where do we start? How do we structure the initiative? Is the initiative company-wide or siloed? Who leads the initiative? What technology do we need? What skills are we lacking? What is our competition doing? How will we train our employees for new roles as these technologies are implemented?

Questions that are rarely asked happen to be as important: How do we handle the human, emotional part of the transformation? How do we lead in a way so that our employees will emotionally embrace the new learning and ways of working that need to occur? How do we minimize one of the biggest human inhibitors to transformation: fear?


An organization can’t transform unless its people transform. And its people won’t transform unless their managers and leaders transform. Leaders and managers must role model the new desired mindsets and behaviors that are necessary to successfully accomplish the transformation.

We all know that change is hard — especially in successful companies. People can become complacent in doing what they already do, especially if it has worked well in the past. But the old corporate axiom “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” no longer applies in an environment of fast-paced technological change. Successful organizations today have to be constantly proactive, not reactive and defensive.

Transformation requires the mitigation of fear. Mitigating the fear of failing, the fear of not knowing what to do, the fear of learning new skills, and the fear of losing one’s position or job. Change can be scary for employees — especially for employees who do not have the skills needed for the new way of working, and especially for employees who do not have significant financial reserves to fall back upon if they find themselves needing to change jobs. People cannot learn when they are fearful.

What has surprised us in our transformation work is that leaders and managers can be just as fearful of the transformative change as employees. For managers and executives, the fear can be a fear of losing what they now have (power, status, responsibilities) or the anxiety about whether they have the abilities to do what will be necessary in order to lead in this new era. We have seen leaders sink underneath conference tables when it was suggested that they do a transformative pilot program. The fear of not knowing can be big.

Managers and leaders can deal with these fears many different ways. Reflexive responses can be:
  • The “corporate grin and nodding yes” with the internal talk being “no way”
  • Doing the minimal necessary to buy into the change or transformation initiative, hoping to make it to stock option vesting or retirement doing what one has done before
  • Delegating responsibility for the change initiative to a group, creating distance — not having direct responsibility for the initiative so failure is not attributed to them
  • Half-heartedly undertaking the transformation, believing this initiative — like many in the past — will blow over

We have seen all of these attitudes in the last few years inside very successful companies that have embarked on a major transformation initiative. How does a leadership team get to the place where they can admit their individual fears and find ways to support each other in acknowledging and working through those fears? How does a leadership team create a work environment that makes it easier for employees to deal with their fears? An answer to these questions begins with “the why.”


The first part of mitigating fear is having a reason to embrace the fear — a story that each employee can identify with in answering the question: Why should I change? That story is a story of why the organization must change and a story of why each individual needs to learn new ways of working to enable that organizational change. Employees need to make meaning personally of the Why in ways that that make sense to them. That “making sense” must emotionally connect with the individual.

Often, we need to help people find the “WIFM” — the what’s in it for me? Will it help me stay relevant? Will it help my career? Will it help me a better person or more successful in my life? We don’t usually know what will resonate, but ultimately the motivation needs to come from an intrinsic place. 

Conversations with employees individually and/or in small teams are necessary. The company story and the common individual whys must be continuously discussed and referred to for a long period of time until the new way of working becomes a habit. And the new way of working requires people to embrace their fears and to have the courage to go forward. Change is hard. Helping people buy in to change takes time and effort by leaders and managers.

If people buy in to the Why then they can move to the How. What mindsets and behaviors will be needed to accomplish the transformation? What kind of work environment is needed to enable those new mindsets and behaviors — both culturally and process-wise?


With respect to mitigating fear, culturally the leadership needs to create a “psychologically safe workplace” following the research of Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School. A psychologically safe workplace is one where people agree to do no harm to each other and to act civilly at all times. It is a place where everyone can speak up, be candid and have difficult conversations without the fear of — or actual — punishment or retribution.

It is a place where it is safe to challenge the status quo, to challenge each other’s thinking, to challenge higher-ups’ thinking and decisions, to admit one’s mistakes, and to say I don’t know. A safe workplace should mitigate corporate politics and internal competition, and it should enable collaboration, teamwork and learning. In order for that to happen, leaders and managers need to empower people and ensure their safety. Leaders need to show their own weaknesses; they need to fail in front of others and pick themselves back up and try again. Initiatives and trials need to be rewarded, not only the successes, but the effort and spirit. At some point this becomes the norm.


Everyone is fearful — individual differences are a matter of degree. And what differs is how one manages his or her fears. Behaviorally, how do leaders enable workers to overcome their fears? How do leaders learn to personally embrace and deal with their own fears? Leaders need to become more human by acknowledging their fears publicly to others and encouraging their direct reports to do the same. Having nonjudgmental, respectful, caring, compassionate, safe conversations about fear starts at the top. Leaders have to take the first steps in being vulnerable with others and leaders need to have the conversations with others that result in the co-creation of the rules of engagement that can lead to creating an environment where it is psychologically safe for employees to talk about and work through their fears of change.

We have learned that for many leaders it is much easier to start the fear discussion by asking them a series of questions: “Why would your employees be fearful of the change that is needed? What can you do to mitigate that fear?” Then move to the personal discussion. “What about you — what fears do you have about the transformation? How can you mitigate your fear?” Transformation is very personal, and though we read studies and survey outcomes, we very infrequently hear about reasons for the fears. 

Acknowledging that everyone has personal reasons for their fears is a powerful step. Then managers and leaders can have conversations with small groups of employees and ask them what they need from the company in order not to be so fearful and to be courageous. Leaders and managers can ask employees: “How can I help you feel safe here? What do I need to do differently?”
We are not saying you should lower your standards of performance. What we are saying is that if you want big changes in human behaviors, you need to face fear in the workplace courageously, both individually and organizationally.

As Abraham Maslow so aptly stated: “An individual engages in learning to the extent he (or she) is not crippled by fear and to the extent he (or she) feels safe enough to dare.”

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration, Batten executive-in-residence and a Batten Faculty Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Dr. Donna Murdoch is an adjunct assistant professor of Adult Learning and Leadership at Columbia University Teachers College and a partner at Rose Rock Dynamics. This article first appeared in UVA’s Darden Ideas to Action.