Lately, being in my office has been causing feelings of claustrophobia. The tether to my desk has seemed more like a steel chain – email, paperwork and a plethora of issues trapping me in a space that is reasonably effective for rote completion of tasks, but seems to squelch efforts at creativity.
This has me thinking about the importance that physical spaces play in our job performance, and more importantly in student learning. With all of the reforms (and budget issues) on the plate of public education, it is understandable that the physical environment of our classrooms and schools takes a back seat. That being said, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t missing the boat on this issue. Is the physical environment in which we (and our students) work, inextricably tied to the quality of our performance–specifically efforts to encourage creativity and innovation?
I will use my situation as an example. When I walk into my office, I generally gravitate toward my desk and computer. Doing so inevitable results in time spent reviewing my e-mail inbox and completing paperwork. Although I generally have an open door policy when I am in my office (both literally and figuratively), I am relatively isolated from my staff, students and what is happening in our classrooms and on campus. The structure of “the office” lends itself to this type of activity (e-mail, paperwork, etc.) and isolation. A Pavlovian response…if you will.
Office => Desk => Computer => E-Mail => Disengage/Isolate
My fear is that many of our students suffer a similar response when they enter our schools and classrooms. Consider the structure and setting of a typical classroom. A teacher’s desk and chair, student desks (generally with the chair and writing surface connected), limited number of windows, sterile paint (i.e. eggshell), and perhaps a bulletin board or two.
Classroom => Desk => Notebook/Textbook => Disengage/Isolate
Our school has recently had the opportunity to work with several leaders from a collaborative community called Gangplank. Derek Neighbors (@dneighbors), Jade Meskill (@iamruinous) and Mike Benner (@refriedchicken) have some fantastic ideas about shifting the educational paradigm. It has been great working with them to identify innovative approaches to the issues we face at our school–but that is another blog post. A collateral effect of working with Gangplank has been the way it has challenged my thinking about our use of physical space. During our last session, we met at the Gangplank headquarters, and I have to say that it was liberating to get out of my office, away from classrooms with the traditional student desks, and into an environment that was set up to encourage collaboration. It can be a bit confusing for those used to a traditional office hierarchy, but it is evident that the work space at Gangplank offers something different.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the physical environment of our schools is “the” difference maker, but I do believe it can be a significant contributor to the atmosphere of positive energy, creativity, engagement, enthusiasm and innovation that we are trying to create. My recent experiences at Gangplank have me considering crazy questions like:
- Why do I need an office (at least in the traditional sense of the term)?
- How does the physical structure of my environment impact my day-to-day activities?
- What would happen if I did away with my desk and changed the expectations that I “reside” in a particular place at specific times?
- What impact would this change have on my job performance and connectedness to my staff, students and school?
My initial thought is that it would be a good thing. Who knows? Maybe I will give it a shot. Technology gives me the opportunity to take my office mobile — setting up wherever I need to be in order to remain an engaged educator/learner. Perhaps an experiment with trying. Until then, I challenge you to reflect upon your educational environment and I will try to keep from getting lost in the issue of space.