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January 29, 2012 / glencoyote

Imagine a School

Let us design a learning environment. Start with a large physical space. I imagine an aircraft hangar or a mid-sized convention hall, but any large rectangular building with high ceilings that can provide four hundred or so teenagers and adults space to move and congregate, with lots of flow and flexibility, will do. Let’s have a curved roof that can let in natural light; maybe an interior courtyard or green space, and lots of nooks and crannies around the perimeter. I’m envisioning a very large room that combines the sturdiness of L.A.’s Union Station and the ethereal quality of Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light – an interior environment suffused with a secular sanctity.

This idea of starting with the physical may seem very 20th century, but we still have a need to get everyone out of their homes. We need a space dedicated to collective learning, with all the resources that implies. And, if we design it properly, the space will dissolve, becoming a simple boundary or limit. But for now the physicality makes it fun – a place to play. So let’s approach our school. Walk up to its large front doors above which, in large neon letters, is the name: Design, Media, and Social Change Community, and underneath in smaller letters, Human Solutions for Human Problems.

In education Design thinking is hot. TED hot, HBR hot, save the world/design gunslinger/OpenIDEO hot. But what’s great about it is that it teaches and celebrates creativity and funnels that energy through an iterative – that is, mistake filled – collaborative process of learning through solving problems. Media, of course, adds the challenge of self-expression for an audience. Digital, written, oral, visual communication that shares news, knowledge, culture, opinion, humor, reflection, and story with communities at various scales.  And social change introduces power and a framework for analyzing the causes of the problems that need to be tackled, the reasons why media companies communicate the way they do, and the difference between media that dominates and media that liberates. The focus on social change turns school into a process for injecting the energy and perspective of the rising generation into the public space, into citizenship, into the soul of society, into ownership of the world.

As we pass through the main doors we are already thinking that this is a pretty heady brew, so we are not too surprised at the seeming chaos inside. Think the New York Stock Exchange with fewer people (and not so single-minded), mostly younger, more diverse, and with more skateboards and body art. The large open floor stretching into the distance is dotted with kiosk/modular type structures around which small groups of students and teachers are clustering. Similarly, along the walls there are spaces, some looking like cafes, some glassed-in for quieter conversations, all with groups of people working and talking. As our eyes become accustomed to the overall pattern we notice the details that reveal that many of the work areas are equipped with the resources suited to specific subjects or activities. We can now pick out laboratory modules, a video editing cluster, art and music studios, reading and discussion spaces, and small libraries with books, periodicals and exhibits relating to various fields of study.

Running above our heads along the walls are electronic displays that are scrolling all sorts of information. There is a breaking world news feed over there, above the snack bar. There are event listings with times and locations of lectures, discussions, screenings, study groups, live performances, visits by community partners, and so on scrolling on a number of screens around the hall. But as we study the screens we realize that most of them carry student-generated content that is embedded in the school’s digital online newspaper. Only later, after speaking with a number of students, do we realize that the DMSCC online paper serves as the digital hub for the community.  Called The Globe, the digital hub is a community center through which students stay connected to one another, a repository and display space for student work, a platform for blogging, for forums and debates, and the portal by which the DMSCC engages the global community. With The Globe at the center, the school becomes media.

Although the accoutrements of individual students – their ubiquitous headphones, smart phones, and personal tablet computers – gives the appearance of disengagement from the larger group it is clear that these are tools for staying connected while constantly seeking new inputs. Through the use of personal electronic devices the students stay connected to the digital hub, to their changing study groups, and to wider digital communities. As students select or create projects that both interest them and also meet their academic requirements, they submit their personal profile along with the number of people and the types of skills they are hoping to attract to their team. The Globe, using the same type of software that multiplayer online gaming communities use, identifies possible partners and facilitates the creation of a team. It is these work groups that are seen meeting with teachers, gathering in study rooms, or moving about foraging for resources, that contribute to the seeming constant motion within the hall (aided and abetted by the sometimes scary, always hilarious, role playing games that are often taking place).

When we ask students what they are studying, the response is not a list of courses. Instead they tell us about the particular problem that they are trying to solve right now. They are perfectly willing to explain the problem, describe the team they have assembled, which teachers are advising them, what outside organizations and resources they are connecting with, and what they have learned so far and what they still need to figure out. And when we ask them whether they are at all concerned about whether these various projects add up to a solid education, they pull up their digital portfolio on their iPads and take us through their cumulative personal record of learning, illustrated with the work samples that demonstrate their accomplishments. We begin to see more clearly that the design of the school grows out of, and reinforces self-directed learning in a collaborative environment.

As we pass through the great doors again, this time to leave DMSCC, we realize that the personal digital tools, unstructured space, and unscripted movement only seem chaotic to observers who do not yet understand that the key to managing the enormous flows of information, analyzing the complex problems challenging our world, and to creating the amazing products, ideas and experiences of the future, is the sophisticated filtering ability that can only come from combining mastery of digital tools with the connectivity of a conscious community focused on solving real problems. With great power comes great responsibility.



Leave a Comment
  1. Felipe Velez / Jan 31 2012 7:06 pm

    Hi Glen, peace to you…

    Okay, I am going to start looking for the physical space. You have articulated the vision of what we are to become. Let’s do it!


    PS I would like this vision statement in The Globe. Please send it to Solig.

  2. Ursula / Feb 2 2012 12:24 pm

    Love this!! I would go back to school in a second if I thought it would be one tenth of this beautiful, messy, honest learning platform. I think that design and environment create all things and shaping communities is one of the most essential aspects of its’ role. Thanks for sharing this vision

  3. Jordy Hyman / Feb 2 2012 6:43 pm

    Glen, we need to talk about this.

    • glencoyote / Feb 3 2012 4:16 am

      Yeah, I’d like to think it would be your kind of place – nature boy and all, even.

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