"There's a huge gap between the needs and requirements of the job market of the 21st century and what the education system is delivering," said Vishal Talreja, founder and CEO of Dream A Dream, a Bangalore-based organization that prepares young people from vulnerable backgrounds to succeed in a changing world.
Talreja is right -- neither employers nor education leaders (not to mention some students themselves) would argue otherwise. But it is the second point Talreja made before the 2015 LEGO Foundation IDEA Conference that educator-innovators should pay the most attention to: "Learning spaces, which could be physical spaces of learning or just safe environments for learning, are extremely critical."
A learning space differs in both look and feel from the traditional classroom. In the past year, we've met social entrepreneurs with an eye on education who are creating cost-effective methods to infuse schools with the type of culture and design that students need to better develop their curiosity, creativity, and imagination, and better achieve desired learning outcomes.
An Inclusive, Colorful School Environment
Kabir Vajpeyi, the founder of the Vinyas Centre for Architectural Research and Design, has helped modify the physical infrastructure in thousands of Indian schools -- even in the poorest districts -- so that young students can actively learn from the classroom space. The driving principle is that no two children learn at the same pace, so Vinyas allows students to train their brain wherever they are.
Pieces of furniture are labeled with their weight. Chalkboards are installed at a child's level. Doors open to reveal protractors printed on the floor. A window security grill doubles as an abacus. Staircases are painted in every color and labeled with whole numbers, ascending and descending, so that children can intuitively practice and build upon concepts in mathematics.
"The moment you have playful settings, there is more constructive engagement," Vajpeyi said. "You don't have to restrict children for doing this or that because they are engaging themselves on their own. A lot of activities are now self-directed, so you don't have to have somebody looking after each and every thing."
Although no adult supervision is required, adults are an important part of the learning process. The Vinyas team has created a guide, Building as a Learning Aid (BaLA), approved and spread by India's Ministry of Education, which prepares any educator to be the type of leader that children in any grade need. It covers roles and objectives, and is designed to fit neatly into the National Curriculum Framework used by schools across India, so while the instruction is more playful, the timetable remains fixed.
"Even before interventions are made, we hold an orientation session with teachers, led by pedagogues, where they begin to understand that space is a resource in the learning process," Vajpeyi said. "We offer a framework, which they can adapt and modify."
Vajpeyi recommends making every stakeholder part of the solution, responsible for championing reimagined learning spaces. "If they own the solution, they will take it forward," he said.
The Real Power in Prototyping
There is no one answer to what, exactly, makes a learning environment creative. In the U.S., the Betaversity team has built an easily replicable space that allows the design thinking process to happen in any environment.
They've created the BetaBox, "a prototyping lab in a shipping container, a makerspace in a box," as described by founder Blake Margraff. The inside of the BetaBox, which can comfortably fit a dozen students, looks "like an Apple store," except that in addition to iPads and laptops (loaded with computer-aided design, or CAD, software), there are also 3D printers and laser cutters. Additionally, these spaces are home to a huge array of soft prototyping supplies that Margraff calls "speed-of-thought materials."
"The closest comparison is what you'd find in any corner of a kindergarten room -- arts and crafts supplies, pipe cleaners, Play-Doh," he said. "That means you don't have to be an engineer with extensive understanding of CAD modeling to get hands-on, to build something that matters from the get-go."
Perhaps that's the most surprising thing about designing truly captivating and inspiring learning spaces, along with an entrepreneurial culture that thrives in them: it doesn't have to be expensive. According to Margraff, there's a good chance that the cost per square foot of constructing a futuristic makerspace, including high-tech equipment, is less than installing bamboo flooring.
For K-12 schools, BetaBox offers basic blueprints for more than 50 products that cost less than $20 each, including an Altoid mint radio, which push students to iterate, redesign, and come up with fast fixes. At the university level, the end products can be truly revolutionary.
"One student, Gregory Poore, a biomedical engineer, walked in, looked around, and, as usual, walked out," Margraff said. "He can back an hour later with a couple of engineering friends and one design friend. Over the course of just seven hours, they designed and 3D-printed infant asthma inhaler that allows for a more ergonomic distribution, which is a huge medical need. The fact that they, in less than a work day, pulled it off, blew their professors away."
Here’s Margraff's advice to educators or administrators looking to bring this sort of attitude and activity to their classroom:
- Let students walk away with something "real." They need to learn more than just theory.
- Don't underestimate interdisciplinary collaboration. When people from different backgrounds are put in a space conducive to iteration (non-intimidating tools help), that's when sparks begin to fly. That's where innovation begins to occur.
- Find the student networks which focus less on class instruction and more on launching a business, or making a real-world impact. Those are the same changemakers who are already on your campus and who can drive this type of culture forward.
- Get teachers into the game. Allow them to draw up a proposal with a list of all the classroom materials they'll need -- and how often they must be fixed, replaced, or restocked. Challenge them to cut their budget in half and let the rest fall into place.