We thought we were breaking boundaries with flexible seating.
The reality is, though, we’re probably still doing everything the same. The only difference is just that we’ve offered our students “fun” chairs.
Reforming education is no more about offering the same old, tired content to kids sitting on bouncy balls while you lecture, as it is about taking the same old tired teaching and putting it on a laptop.
Reformation is not about finding new ways to do old things.
It’s burning the furniture to have room to let your students build a rocket ship.
Not literally (we aren’t actually condoning arson, to be 100% clear).
But some of our recognized reformers are doing things REALLY close to that (we’re looking at you, Wooranna Park).
Of the eleven schools we identified as the leaders in the reformation of education, a whopping eight of them have embraced at least one element of immersive environments. While some changes could be argued to be “just for fun” (and they are fun), there is a method to this madness that shakes some education foundations - in some cases, literally.
The idea of an immersive environment according to these reformers is that the environment can be “the third teacher”, an idea actually brought to the international education stage by Regio Emilia. Learning is very much affected by environment. Although we know that, it is often the last thing we give attention.
Here’s how leaders view their environment, how they have adapted their space to communicate their priorities, and how they use it as a tool to help their students learn.
Ron Clark Academy
If you are at all familiar with the work of RCA (and many of us are), you know about being slide certified.
What you might not know about, though, is that the building that houses the school was once a warehouse in Atlanta, Georgia that required some serious renovations to become what it is today.
RCA and its founders sought not only to create an environment safe for learning and raising youth who would succeed, they wanted to pull a community up with them. Not only did they seek and receive the help of countless community members, but they designed a building with one more “new” type of student involved - you.
RCA isn’t satisfied with teaching a group of middle-schoolers.
It isn’t satisfied with changing their own community, or greater Atlanta. According to their website, they’ve had over 80,000 visitors - educators like us, administrators, and others, who have come to participate and learn from their experiences.
The environment was strategically formed to educate each of these demographics. It’s an attractive, fun environment. It’s open, it’s respectful to all learners, and each area has a purpose.
That intentional design and usage to fulfill a specific mission is what separates reformers from regulars.
It’s not about the seating.
It’s about intention, design, and usage.
Wooranna Park Primary School
School is fun at Wooranna Park Primary. It’s often called the “Disneyland of Schools”. There are no roller coasters (yet - we wouldn’t be surprised if they end up with one, to be honest), but they have learning spaces that are as follows:
- a full-sized dragon boat
- a ‘holodeck’, which can transform into any environment kids can imagine, thanks to some technology
- a virtual classroom in Minecraft
In the world of immersive environments, Wooranna Park is definitely level “expert”.
In these spaces, students are self-led in much of their learning. They are on individual missions exploring things like mental wellness, poverty, autism, DNA variations, and space exploration. Projects are “passion projects”.
Technology is a tool, and students use it at will to explore things they are curious about.
The space is open, and children move to the area they need to access when they need to access it.
Not only is the space attractive to children, comfortable for everyone, and designed with pedagogy in mind, there is a lot of natural light. The venting systems are designed for comfortable temperature and air filtration. Everything has been thought of and designed to remove any barrier between a student and their own learning.
And it shows in the learning outcomes. Students actively use the library to dig through information. They involve their teachers or their peers or community leaders.
The teachers don’t have to set these things up - the students themselves pursue it.
These ELEMENTARY students are pursuing answers to questions THEY are curious about.
There are also labs, a few classroom areas, reading lofts and nooks, a maker space, a spaceship, lounges, and alcoves designed for exploration, small group collaboration, and self-directed learning.
The design is, just as that with RCA, intentional. It’s focused on the missional aspects of the school. It is specifically designed for the pedagogy of the teachers and faculty.
It is, without a doubt, the third teacher.
It has to be noted that this school is a full Reggio Emilia school, so one would expect them to truly embrace the concepts of relying on the environment for serious pedagogical impact.
But the truly amazing thing for us to take away is that this is a school on a budget (like many of us). They also rely on outside resources (RCA is the same), but they are not salespeople. They are educators, like us. They have truly learned to make the building a part of learning. It’s not just cute or novel. Everything that is designed is useful, not just for show.
And it’s not always expensive. Many of us assume we could never make our classroom environments so immersive, but Wooranna Park Primary would disagree. It takes some work, but it’s definitely possible.
Again, it’s not about the seating or the building, but the pedagogy, the intent, the usage, and the determination to be sure every design relates to each student’s learning. The space is an integral part of the learning because of that.
We love Fuji Yochien because it’s an early childhood building designed with young children as the focus. So many districts and societies completely ignore the young child and focus on those in secondary, not realizing that if they would only invest in their youngest students, and continue investing in them, the last four years of their education would be a lot more natural and successful.
Fuji Yochien, the circle school, is a Montessori school. Their pedagogy, again, defines the physical space. They believe everything in the world is a tool children can use to access their own learning.
The physical building fosters independence, brave curiosity, failure, and natural physical desires (like running around a circle nonstop until you can’t move anymore - although that particular need is expressed outside on the roof rather than inside). Students are welcome to climb, jump, run, sit, paint, add, read, and learn.
It’s a student-centered, intentional environment, built to perfectly support the learning of young children. The inside is designed with as many natural elements as the architects could incorporate. There are, again, few permanent walls, and those doors and walls facing the inner courtyard are all clear and can be opened or closed as the weather requires.
Children are invited to visit peers and other teachers, to watch other children learn, and to interact with other children and adults throughout their day.
Although teachers say it gets noisy at times, the children generally find a happy hum of activity - not too loud or too quiet.
We love that this space truly honors and respects the young child.
Join us next time as we continue to explore leaders in reformation who use their indoor learning environments in amazing ways!