When I visit a classroom, the first thing I do is look at the furniture, the art and student work on the walls, and the positioning of the teacher’s desk. I look at the floor and the lighting in the room. I look at what the story of the space and who its integral players. Before I think about content or curriculum, before I think about pedagogy and classroom management, I think about the setting and the context it is creating. Spaces have power.
Today, the world’s most powerful innovators are revolutionizing the way work environments are designed. For example, in Google’s New York City office, everything from the corridors and ornaments to the colors of paint are carefully curated, and each workspace is designed to stimulate critical engagement, creativity, and meaningful social interaction with colleagues, including those in other departments and teams. The work environment Google is attempting to create is set up to encourage certain ways of thinking and behaving. And it’s also trying to communicate to the people who work there that they and their contributions matter.
This is what a Project Based Learning classroom anchored in equity, equality and inclusion must also do. Because when a student first step into a room they will make a judgment about the type of class they are in just like I did. They’ll look at the furniture and what’s on the walls, and they’ll look to see the position of the teacher’s desk. They’ll assess the classroom as an environment. They’ll ask themselves those universal existential questions: Is it safe? Do I belong?
A classroom communicates to students in nonverbal but meaningful ways, whether or not they are included and valued. For this reason, a Project Based Classroom is unique in many ways. Primarily, a PBL Classroom is a space of innovation where the physical manifestations of economic, demographic and cultural forces are valued and represented in authentic ways. In other words, a PBL classroom must be anchored within and a reflection of students’ needs, aesthetics, cultures and their communities and, like Google’s offices, it must stimulate curiosity and critical engagement and meaningful social interactions. But what if your school doesn’t have Google money, the resources to fund reimagining your classroom’s design? After all, what public school district in America has the extra money lying around to buy state of the art furniture and posters and plants and lights, and all of the ephemera needed to redesign classrooms to be inclusive and sensitive and thus reflecting our students?
Because a Project Based Classroom considers every obstacle a project in disguise, this limitation, presented and properly framed by the teacher, is the class’s first project. The students will design the class. This idea of students taking ownership and designing their learning space is supported by research. In “The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management Strategies on Well-Being and Productivity” Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, shared that when given the opportunity to arrange a small office, workers were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this control.32 percent more productive. Imagine what that might look like in student improvements in the academic and soft skill components of a project.
Recently, I was taking a Philosophy of Education Course at High Tech High’s Credentialing program, and the teacher and artist and one of the leaders of the course, Enrigue “Chikle” Lugo, said, “Students are not our future. They’re our present, our right here and now. It’s true.”
If Chikle is right, and I believe he is, and research proves that the psychological lift that comes from feeling respected enhances engagement, then before any learning begins, this is what the environment of a Project Based Classroom must communicate to students.