In Todd Rose’s compelling TEDtalk on the Myth of Average (see below), he tells us that “desks are the cockpits of our economy”. This is a provocative statement which sums up the analogy he makes between fighter jet cockpits and desks in schools. Rose explains that the Air Force, after years of poor performance, finally came to the realization that a one-size-fits-all cockpit simply did not work. Faced with such a wide range of body types, engineers had always designed cockpits to the average size profile. What they learned through extensive research was that this average pilot did not exist, so the cockpits were really one-size-fits-none. From that time forward they engineered cockpits to the outer edges of the range and added the ability to adjust where needed, thereby giving each individual pilot an opportunity to find the comfort and access needed for success. Rose has adeptly made the connection between cockpits and student desks. If we understand that every student is different, with different strengths and weaknesses, different styles of learning, different rates of maturation and development, then why do we think that a one-size-fits-all education works? If we design our textbooks, curriculum, learning spaces, even our desks to the average student, do we end up really designing for nobody?
I am consumed with exploring questions such as these and opening up the conversation with educators around the world. In the last few years, I have seen a shift towards the understanding that education needs to be as customizable as possible and that successful independent schools need to provide diverse opportunities designed to prepare students for future challenges that no longer lie within a predictable range. This shift has been driven by a pledge to know, challenge, and love every student and has been furthered by strong commitment to faculty professional development and facility upgrades.
The school I work at has invested a good deal of money and energy this year into the development of more flexible learning spaces. Desks have been removed from a middle school computer lab and replaced by a series of tables that can be arranged in a variety of formations suitable for a wide range of activity. Everything from small group work to boardroom presentations can be easily accommodated, thereby creating a space for both student and teacher collaboration that lends itself well to project work. More informal spaces complete with comfortable couches that can be used for group discussions and socializing have been added, while plans in the library include the possibility of mobile bookshelves for customizable and shareable learning space.
In first grade classrooms, desks were replaced by fold-able work tables on wheels. Every day the students themselves will have the power to decide how they are most comfortable and thus ready to learn. Need more organized workspace? Leave the tables up. Prefer to work on the floor? Fold the tables, push them to the side and have all the real estate required. In a traditional school building, minor changes such as these are certainly steps in the right direction. Without actually knocking down walls, we are working to move past the old notions of classroom learning and encouraging teachers to allow students more freedom to move around.
In Sweden they have taken this concept and run with it. Wishful thinking for most of us…Check it out here. http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665867/school-without-walls-fosters-a-free-wheeling-theory-of-learning#1
Learning takes place in many different ways. Gone are the days when a quiet room of students seated in rows of desks is the ideal learning environment. While that type of environment can be appropriate at times, what we have learned from Todd Rose, other thought leaders in education, and from our own experience is that an adaptive, flexible learning environment with multiple spaces and configurations is paramount to the development of student creativity and achievement. By moving out of a one-size-fits-all mindset, we will be providing the opportunity to succeed to all students. After all, if desks are the cockpit of our economy, than it is imperative for our future that we be sure to make those desks adjustable.
Todd Rose was not really just talking about furniture in his talk. He was making a call to our education system to stop designing all activities, materials, and spaces to the average. If we listen to him, we can begin to free students from the constraints traditional schools have placed on them and we can give all students an opportunity to continue to love learning.