Listen to Podcast of this Session

Pre-Session Reflections:
I’m sitting in at the TASA 2009 MidWinters’ Conference in Austin, Texas, waiting for the Reinventing Learning session to start in about 38 minutes. The session facilitators are Jeff Sharp (Creativity Director… and Shannon K. Buerk, Director of Cambridge Strategic Services ( More at their web site at and, I can’t help but notice they also have a blog.

One of the slides that appears is this:

Where do you go to learn? to deal? to feel? …what does that look like?

My response to the question is pretty different than what it was a few years ago. In the early days, my focus was on learning via magazines, inservice sessions and conferences. Now, learning happens pretty much at any time, anywhere. If I have a question, I google it, sure in the knowledge that someone else has already considered it. On the rare occasions that I can’t find the answer–of if it takes me a long time to find an answer buried somewhere–then I take it upon myself to share the process and response via a blog.

I suppose, my interpretation of this question was entirely ONLINE. And, I don’t think I’m alone in considering online learning spaces rather than face to face…it’s like The Matrix, where the reality is terrible but the virtual is wonderful to learn in (I’ll stop with the simile there). How can we create virtual learning spaces that do what these facilitators suggest with physical space? Are there different factors or are they the same?

The handout for the session–which was just passed out–includes these items/questions:

  • Where do you go when you need to concentrate?
  • To process?
  • To reflect?
  • To find comfort?
  • To problem-solve?
  • To think deeply?
  • To learn something new?
  • What does that space look like? Smell like? Sound Like? Taste Like?

More notes from the handout:

  • Discuss: How are your environmental preferences different from your kids? Or your grandkids? How are those preferred environments different from the traditional classroom?


The following are Miguel’s notes on this presentation on Monday, January 26, 2009 at the TASA MidWinters’ Conference.

Good morning, I’m Shannon Buerke. . .I do strategic planning facilitation. I also do transformation of learning environment, working with facilities and architects, redesign the environment to meet the needs….I’m Jeff Sharpe…bring thoughts and research and creativity and merge that with the physical environment. The environment is a tool for collaboration.

[Here’s an excerpt from Shannon’s blog, by way of introduction:]

Over the past 20 years, I have been a teacher, curriculum director, consultant, assistant superintendent for instruction, and associate superintendent. I have facilitated a number of initiatives in a number of districts that have purported to have positive impact on students. More recently, I have worked on a number of projects spread across the globe that are also expected to have a dynamic impact on students. I felt like I knew the answer to the question of the purpose: to help each child reach his/her own full potential …to free them to create their own future… or something like that.
Can we talk?

For a minute, think about why you chose this session…why did you come and what do you want to get out of this session?

[I suppose that I thought the session was about something else rather than facilities planning! Of course, since I don’t know anything about facilities,


  • How to change old spaces into a new learning environment without building a new building.
  • More ideas for engaging students with the learning environment.

Some things we’re going to talk about…it’s what you can do inside a building. We’re trying to focus on things that are cheap and easy but that have a big impact. I want to tell you why we care about this stuff, factors you can look at, what we need to address.

Shannon’s story began with a group of students who had failed the TAAS…kids couldn’t graduate if they didn’t pass it. 25% of the graduating class was in danger of not graduating. When I walked in the room, I inherited, it was a very traditional room. Not very welcoming and I’d had some learning styles training. ..what can I do? Change the design of the room, the lighting, get comfortable seating, allowed students to listen to Walkmans, and went through that semester and had phenomenal results on the test!

Then I went to address that in AP English classes, junior college, being sensitive to what’s happening in the environment made a big difference for students. We sometimes take this for granted and don’t pay attention to it. It really works now in the role that we work in together. I believe in that power of the environment.

Jeff’s Story: I come from an academic environment…create environments for people to discover their voice, and be creative. In the end, it’s about discovering the tool where we bridge about notions of learning, creativity, collaboration and how the physical environment bridges those. We bring those together as those become a manifestation of both of those.

How does your kids or grandkids environment differ from yours?
How do those environments differ from the traditional classroom?

If you can choose, create the environment, how can we manipulate the environment to match?

What we know is that the environment impacts us spiritually, intellectually, emotionally…our memory is connected to place. What we really talk about and investigate is what that means to all people, how do you create a tapestry of all people, where is that place where learning happens?

Beliefs about learners…

Spaces that support and inspire:
Seamless tech
career pathways
project learning

An effective learning environment provides for all …it amplifies and engages, it is visceral.

design how spaces should act, rather than how they should look…this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be beautiful as well.

Need to do this within set budgets and constraints…think of spaces you are in control of. How can you reinvent those spaces? There are not a lot of quick fixes, they take energy, time, training…you don’t have to spend a lot of time training people.

We invite you to think about how you can reinvent the learning environment.

Environmental factors:

  1. light – mood, attention, visual processing, achievement and wellness
  2. color –
  3. sound – shapes harmony, memory, mood and brain/body rhythms
  4. furniture – encourages or hinders mobility, collaboration and comfort
  5. interactivity – create, discover, imagine and share

Lighting affects…
CT Suite (Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital)…

Simple Effective Lighting Modes:
-General Mode: provides recommended light levels and illuminates ceilings and walls
-A/V Mode: nsures presentations are clearly visible while providing enough light for proper classroom communication
-Focus Mode – Light can focus attention….

The intersection of color and light…take colored transparencies…they can be used to increased student reading fluency…it changes the way light is filtered. Black on white is the hardest to process for the human eye.

Accentuating the red end of the light spectrum at a workplace increases a person’s pulse and breathing rate, accentuating the blue end the reverse effect takes place.

Blue light research: blue light rasies serotonin and suppresses melatonin, therapeutic use of blue light for treating winter depression and circadian disorders, aging eyes respond well to blue light.

Sounds enable instant memory recall. Marketing people understand this due to the ditties that get stuck in our head. Great for setting the mood. With kids hooked up to iPods all the time, there is a retreat to fight or flight. THe brain is not able to process in the frontal lobes. Quite a bit that shows that the types of sound can make a difference in how students are able to process.

[Listening to music clips in the session] Be aware of how it makes you feel differently. I’m not saying its appropriate for children to listen just to their music in a room…but rather that sound is important. Quietness is more distracting and louder. [tapping on the desk] Kids will often create their own white noise to take control.

We are sending a message when we walk into a classroom…you’re going to learn by yourself, you’re not encouraged to interact with people around you. When you put those bodies where the body weight is centered on a few inches of bone. Learners need to move when the time equals your age.

Students need to move…cerebral spinal fluid. CSF can only bring and dump the waste [wow, I had no idea!!] but in the classroom, that’s not the case. Furniture can make a difference.

Furniture…flexibility and fluidity. It’s important to be able to reconfigure space. and be able to slide chairs/desks around.

In the UK, transforming the learning environment–physical space–but if you put the wrong furniture in a room, you’re back to a mindset that reflects how teachers and students work together with each other. TEA does not have a rule about desks/chairs to be used in a classroom.

What technology does a child have now that you didn’t have before? if you think about the devices, they have quite a bit of flexibility. Students also have smart devices to jump out and get information…they have blurred environments, “power-down” and “unplug” and focus on this one person who will be the keeper of all knowledge.

How can we enable collaboration?

What can this look like?

  • Lightweight furniture on wheels.
  • Color in the classroom
  • Impact of natural lighting
  • Flourescents with different colors ($15 color sleeve with a dimming system)
  • Ceiling in the midst
  • Beanbag furniture
  • take advantage of in-between spaces
  • use furniture from IKEA
  • learning labs team + project-based learning: flexibility, fluidity, memory…

How do you capture+share knowledge? You never lose the energy of collaboration and sharing. Chalkboard paint can allow sharing and collaboration. We think through writing…create this idea of learning on display.

Collaborative places+tools

Bringing common laptops that interface on the screen.

CityWall in Helsinke, Finland:

CityWall is a large multi-touch display installed in a central location in Helsinki which acts as a collaborative and playful interface for the everchanging media landscape of the city. The new interface launched in October 2008 also allows working with 3D objects, which enables multiple content and multiple timelines.
Visit web site

Think about things outside what you know of education. How can peer-to-peer learning happen in your spaces?

Outside the classroom…create spaces that are sticky, so that kids can stay there and relax between classrooms. Use archives and exhibit of a school as a definer of a place. Make the display more purposeful and well-designed.

New Tech High School @ Coppell ISD:
Transforming a space in Coppell ISD, how to create a different learning environment…found this replicable concept. We went into a lot of classrooms around the U.S….regardless of the structure, when we walked in, it was still the same type of student/teacher role with unengaged students. In New Tech HS, the kids were engaged because they were driving the learning.

We tried to create a space to support project-based learning, students driving the learning from a problem.

We had declining enrollment so we decided to do a “choice school.” We had an elementary, had SHW come in a renovate the library. New furniture…one of the major changes was getting rid of books in the library…everything is digital, per someone from the district in the

Quotes from student/faculty:

“It is so cool to see how the elementary I loved has now become a HS where we can work together with tech in a professional environment. I wondered how it was going to work in an elementary. The place is totally transformed. I love it.”

“The learners are excited to come here to school. We have an attendance rate of 99.8% for a high school. That is all about how they feeland that starts when they walk in the door. It is also how the neviironment supports collaboration and project-based learning. We couldn’t be more pleased about that….”

Parting quote:

“New types of learning spaces create new patterns of social and intellectual interactions…the entire campus [building] becomes an interactive learning device.” –William Mitchell 2004

Students, when walking into these environments know something different is happening, but working with staff to change their mindsets…please speak to that.

R: Make sure the environment is flexible that some things can still happen the way teachers function…culture is set when you walk into the building. Create an owner’s manual. Work with teachers about how to use these learning spaces and evolve that [imagine doing this with virtual learning spaces].

This notion of institutional evolution…to the people in UK, rebuilt schools, fixed them up a bit and haven’t done much since. So one of the biggest factors, how do you create agile learning environments that evolve? Creating an environment that evolves with the institution.

Your question is good….

Q:When you begin to design the space, how do you design a space that considers different learning styles? What factors?
R: Level the playing field, making sure there was enough variety in there to match various preferences.

Think about what your first step is…what are you going to do next?

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