The LEAP Challenge Blog

Jeanne L. Narum
Founding Director of Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), Distinguished Fellow and Director Emerita

Environments for Twenty-First-Century Learning

Thinking strategically about environments for learning in 2020 was the focus of the pre-meeting workshop on physical learning environments, orchestrated by Marci Sortor from St. Olaf College, Rick Vaz from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and me.  Our intent was to create an open forum to discuss fundamental questions around spaces and learning.

The workshop was in three parts: (1) attention to learners, arriving at a common language and vision about what learners were to become; (2) attention to the kind of learning experiences that enabled that becoming; and (3) attention to the kind of spaces that facilitate such experiences, with conversations about process embedded throughout. This approach modeled steps that an on-campus community would take in moving toward shaping and reshaping physical spaces for learning.

The discussions were focused around a major twenty-first-century goal for liberal education: to prepare students to become interdisciplinary, globally-aware problem solvers. Thus, not quite serendipitously, the design of the workshop mapped nicely with the thrust of the new big questions and urgent challenges AAC&U posed to participants as the meeting convened on Thursday morning. By the end of our time together, and with the facilitating skills of six architects, each table group arrived at a visual representation of space or cluster of spaces that would give students the opportunity to 'practice' how to negotiate differences, how to move back and forth between different worlds, to understand and appreciate the value of being outside of one's comfort zones, and to move back and forth between private spaces for reflection and recreation and spaces for collaborative work with diverse teams. 

Each graphic illustration signaled the value of intentionally clustered spaces, with movement as needed for different stages of learning or kinds of learning experiences.   All—of course—with easy access to food, technology, and windows that bring the exterior world into the interior spaces for learning.  At least one had a roof that could open, in addition to courtyards and other outside rooms for learning. A short video from WPI students working in Namibia opened the workshop, with Rick describing learning in context. 

Insights from his remarks catalyzed discussions about the value of student-owned spaces that enabled the messy experience of wrestling with problems, spaces for communicating, debating, and prototyping.  That mental image of spaces that work were echoed in 'products' from some groups, illustrating plans of spaces that could accommodate any arrangement (type) of furniture, with 'transient' wall surfaces (glass) on which problems could be explored and solutions made public. As with on-campus space planning journeys, this visualization exercise followed deep and sometimes difficult discussions, first about what students should become and then about the learning experiences that would enable that transformation. 

Marci established the context for the discussions about enabling and transformation, and groups decided that students (and faculty) should be able to

  • understand and integrate the knowledge and approaches of different disciplines
  • understand and integrate different contexts and circumstances of different places and settings
  • draw on this integrated approach to see connections and ask productive questions that might not be apparent using a single disciplinary or place-based approach 
  • understand the larger implications of those questions and their answers, and set them within an interdisciplinary and/or global perspective and be able to communicate solutions and their implications to a diverse audience.

Modeling the ideal on-campus process of shaping and reshaping learning spaces, the opening discussion was about what we want our students to become—specifically in the context of the over-arching theme for the workshop (interdisciplinary, global-problem solvers).  Table groups entered into robust conversations and arrived at qualities students should possess, such as

  • self-knowledge that enables them to become global citizens
  • the ability to find, synthesize, and use information to solve problems
  • effective communication skills—in teams, with digital tools, and across cultures
  • cultural literacy, in all senses.

Asked to reflect on this experience of visioning, participants voiced significant frustration with the time allotted (within the constraints of the workshop).  There were many valuable insights about how frustrating such a discussion can be also at the campus level, with colleagues who do not understand the complexities of the discussions about learning that must precede the planning of learning spaces.  "When faculty are not accountable, interconnected, complex, and ethical, how do we prepare our students to be so?" one participant asked. 

Another commented about the importance of asking people to go beyond their personal experiences to focus on phrases and sentences that are descriptive and concrete, rather than just words. Some participants questioned whether starting with learning experiences rather than learning outcomes might have been more effective. 

This was a valuable point that opened up a discussion about the non-linear process of planning learning spaces, with continual feed-back loops developing as ideas about experiences and spaces begin to emerge and the language of vision becomes more compelling (and specific) as the planning proceeds. 

This happens when, as noted in the earlier comment, those involved with the planning are open to new ideas, follow tangents, and allow time to let conversations flourish. Table groups then turned to the question of what kind of experiences allow this process to happen, with conversations distilled into elegant and provocative language for posting and sharing with workshop colleagues which then set the stage for the final product: their visual illustrations of spaces and places that become themselves tools for learning.

That spaces matter to learning is the grounding vision of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory (LSC), an initiative that builds from and expands my similar efforts under the Project Kaleidoscope umbrella of activities.  On March 7, the LSC will host a webinar to report on this workshop about the conversations and lessons learned about the process of planning, and about how to engage a campus community in these essential discussions about the nature of learning, learning experiences, and learning spaces.  As one participant noted, "These are not simple questions or issues.  They take time and effort and refinement."  Marci and Rick and I invite you to join us on the March LSC webinar.


Jeanne L. Narum is the Principal, Learning Spaces Collaboratory; Director Emeritus, PKAL; and Senior Scholar, AAC&U