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Research on Innovative Learning Environments: It’s time for our “Heschong Mahone” moment

In 1999, the oft-cited Heschong Mahone study revealing the importance of daylighting was published. The research correlated the prominence of daylighting to improved elementary student test scores, pushing the pendulum away from artificial into natural light, setting the stage for the sun-lit schools we find common today. At scale, the world shifted its reliance on intuition to depend on evidence supporting the integration of daylight above perceived energy savings or minimizing distractions. As I reflect on the ILETC Think Tank in September, I wonder if a sea change around the broader design elements of a school is imminent.

The Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change (ILETC)research project of the Learning Environments Applied Research Network at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia, recently hosted the think tank at Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Part of a three-city international tour, the North American think tank represented five U.S. school districts, the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE), the National School Board Association (NSBA), the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education (AIA-CAE), Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University, Columbia University, and Ohalo College of Education in Israel.

How can we get the evidence? Empirical data is a challenge to obtain in schools due to an inability to control all variables, or achieve a large sample size. The Heschong Mahone study was conducted through a sample of over 2,000 classrooms and test scores of 21,000 students. The results were deeply significant. The ongoing Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change project has the potential to influence this type of scale but, as it currently resides in Australia and New Zealand, its potential sample sizes are much smaller than that of the United States.

However, scale is just one way to satisfy the needs of generalizability: Another is control, which spawned a bold idea in the think tank session. Why not create a “living lab” disguised as a typical public school, purpose-built for experimentation? The goal would be to rigorously test the things we have seen work anecdotally–from space variety to agile furniture to transparency to technology integration–within typical constraints, such as public education school district standard accountability metrics, for increased generalizability. This scenario would also allow for systematic testing of various professional learning initiatives and tool kits in the transition to and use of the innovative learning environment.

What would such a school look like? One school leader in the room gave an example of a school consisting of identically designed wings, each with an assortment of operable partitions allowing for various configurations of space, and degrees of openness. One wing could then resemble a traditional, single-cell classroom model with another nearly completely open, and others falling somewhere in between. In this environment, we could investigate a range of space variety, connectivity, and openness. Teachers from one wing may be given purposeful training regarding the use of space while others adopt more organic approaches to the transition. Wings may implement different pedagogical approaches or curricular structures. Timetables could even vary to identify the best amount of time needed to fully utilize opportunities provided by the space. In addition to a variety of design-impact demonstrations, outcomes could include quasi-experimental methodology to obtain evidence regarding the correlation of space, furniture, technology, and training.

What impact are we measuring?

Those in the think tank agreed that academic test scores are not the ideal metric. We must instead think beyond, and measure areas innovative learning environments support most successfully: Student engagement, soft skills, and wellness. Many organizations are already developing such measurement tools. DLR Group is one of those, with the ongoing development of its Student- and Educator-Engagement Indexes.

How can this be accomplished? One of the goals of the think tank was to begin connecting the design industry and academia for funding and feasibility of these research pursuits. The bold idea would require support from the technology industry to assist in its seamless integration, furniture manufactures to outfit the space, and ongoing funding to support research manpower. Research takes time and longitudinal opportunities are especially attractive. Big funding will be key.

This purposeful test environment was one of many ideas percolating throughout the conversation. I left the room feeling optimistic about where next steps may lead. While all the participants have leveraged personal experience as a primary tool to influence their respective organizations in support of innovative learning environments, we need proof to see large-scale change and impact. We have to collect irrefutable volumes of evidence proving the power of design to shift space priorities and impact policy. We need our “Heschong Mahone moment.”

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