12 March 2015

Two Big Takeaways from #InnovateGraded Innovate 2015 Conference

I just got back from attending and presenting at Innovate 2015: Re-imagining School. The Innovate conference is a bi-annual event hosted by Graded School in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Innovate celebrates Graded's "commitment to re-imagine the school that best serves and inspires students for tomorrow." For four days teachers, students, educators, and experts participated in seminars, workshops, and round table discussions, all designed to inspire and re-imagine schools.



I attended workshops by featured speakers Suzie Boss, Scott McLeod, Joey Lee, Ewan McIntosh, and Mike Anderson. I also attended workshops and connected with educators from the International School of Brussels, the American School of Brasilia, Lincoln School in Buenos Aires, the American School of Lima, among various others. An incredible amount of energy and passion was present. After getting a chance to think and reflect, I had two big takeaways about conceptual shifts I saw, one concerning space, the other concerning structure.

Take Away #1: Space—the most innovative schools are re-imagining their learning environments

The "best schools" are re-imagining and re-defining their learning spaces to meet the needs of 21st century learning objectives. These schools are not building more walls and halls, and are not thinking in terms of cells and bells. Traditional, 20th century, factory model schooling is based on this model. These spaces are closed and walled, and the furniture inside them is uniform and standardized.

The best schools are looking at the learning environment—the physical architecture—and seeing it as an integral and necessary component in 21st century teaching and learning. They start with the idea that their new spaces should support their learning goals. When they figure out that the old school architecture of opaque walls, hallways, and learning silos do not support where they wanted to go, they begin re-imagining their spaces. These innovative schools are creating collaborative, flexible, adaptable, movable, visible, and multi-use spaces for students and teachers—flexible use spaces.

The two best examples of this at Innovate 2015 were the International School of Brussels, who designed a brand new high school building and learning environment, and the American School of Brasilia, who redesigned old learning spaces to meet new realities. Both began with the question of what does a 21st century learning environment look like, and what does current learning research support?

Felim Bolster described ISB's thinking in a recent interview:
There were several requirements of the design outlined at the beginning of the process: Community, making learning visible, collaboration and flexibility to teach to a variety of group sizes. I think that in most cases the newly renovated building has enabled us to achieve these requirements.
The American School of Brasilia re-designed and re-imagined their current spaces with the same goals. A short video of their successes can be found here. They re-imagined their library environment and created three separate age-group specific iCommons spaces. They also re-designed their elementary classrooms and their secondary science classrooms by incorporating new flexible, movable, multi-functional furniture and learning space elements.

These examples highlight some of the successes the most innovative schools are having by re-imagining their learning spaces with the creation of flexible use spaces.

Take Away #2: Structure—the most innovative schools are structuring the school day to facilitate student innovation, creation, and exploration

From creating MakerSpaces to emphasizing project-based learning, from dedicating flex time within the school day to creating new schools within schools, the best schools are re-imagining and re-designing their school structure to meet the needs of tomorrow's innovators, creators, and explorers. They are moving from didactic models of pedagogy to authentic and transformative models. 

Creating MakerSpaces within schools is becoming the new big thing. With a little bit of funding and planning these spaces are opening up possibilities for students to create and explore on their own. Other schools are offering new classes on coding, programming, start-ups...the list goes on. They have technology and curriculum coordinators who are brining new ideas, training, and professional development opportunities to their staffs.

The most innovative schools are pushing for a more project-based learning approach, from kindergarten up through high school. With PBL, students try to find real answers to real problems, adding meaning and value to their learning and possibly society at large. Suzie Boss and the Buck Institute for Education have great resources on how and where to get started.

Schools are also finding ways re-design the structure of the school day. The International School of Brussels incorporates a 45 minute flex period into their block schedule, allowing students to pursue independent and collaborative projects outside of their normal classes. Colegio Franklin Delano Roosevelt went one step further and developed the Roosevelt Innovation Academy, a quasi school within a school model for students not being served by the IB Diploma track. Their re-designed interdisciplinary, project-based learning academy is an exciting example of innovating school learning structures.
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Re-imagining school is a daunting title for any conference. However, there are schools who are doing better than others. We can learn a few things from the most innovative ones; the best ones are re-imagining and re-designing learning spaces, and re-imagining and re-designing learning structures. The possibilities are numerous and the hard work is in the implementation, but the successes will be real and long-lasting

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