Monday, October 22, 2012

Lessons from WDW 5: Setting

This is part five in a series in which I explore the question: What elements of the Disney culture could be applied to educational design.

As usual, I'm taking my inspiration for this post from a post that I read at The Disney Institute Blog titled "The Magic of Setting." The gist of that post was the question, "what does your setting say about your business?" Or to translate into my educational focus, "what does your school or classroom setting say about the learning you will do there?"

I like this question because it's easy to tell when you are in an educational setting that has been purposefully designed versus one that has come into being through institutional inertia. To me, a thoughtfully designed setting speaks volumes about how engaged the leaders in that building or classroom are in the experience they hope to create for their students. I like a classroom design that leaves no question about what the focus of the work is, who is doing the work, how the work will be done, and what values are celebrated culturally. 

 Every element of the setting matters and can send a message to a student, employee or visitor that will affect that person's level of engagement in the space. When someone walks into your classroom or school for the first time, they are looking for ways in which they feel they belong. They are looking to see if they are valued and represented. They are looking to see if they will be interested, surprised, inspired and challenged. They are looking for evidence that they will be allowed to be themselves. In many cases, they are looking for a way in which you will prove their expectations wrong. 

What does the furniture in your room say about your class? What does the organization of the room say about the work you will be doing? How often does this change? What is on the walls, on the shelves, in the closets? How clean is the room? What value messages are on the walls, what is their tone, and where are they located? What is the color palette? What are the images? Is there music? If so, what is the tone, and who does it speak to? Where is the focus of the room? If there are tools, supplies or equipment, how accessible are they? Are there clear messages that direct visitors and participants on how to engage? If so, who wrote them? What is the tone? Whose interests are reflected in the decor? All of these questions (and so many more) can lead an observer to draw conclusions about your learning space and their place in it.

I should mention that the same is true for virtual learning spaces. 

One of the comments on the Disney Institute post raised the point that it is entirely possible for someone to have an incredibly well-designed setting and still offer a less-than-satisfactory experience (think of the theme restaurant with bland fare vs. the hole-in-the-wall dive with amazing food). To this I reply that I agree that setting is no substitute for a quality experience, but evidence of thoughtful planning can set the tone for your first interactions. This is important when you are trying to create a positive experience from scratch. The setting gets them there, and the experience keeps them coming back. How many people will not take the risk to buy-in from the beginning if they don't feel comfortable with the space?

Ultimately, the choices we make when we design our spaces have the power to support the experiences we hope our students have. If we create an inviting space that reinforces our values, we are more likely to be successful in creating those experiences because we are more likely to get our students to contribute to the experience, rather than detract from it. If we say we value collaboration, creativity or scholarship, we should be designing spaces that support those values. Then we should be designing learning experiences that incorporate those values. If we do both of those things, we will encourage those values in our students. If, however, we only do one or the other, the dissonance we create between setting and experience can undercut our ability to fully engage our students in the learning.

So I ask you, what does your classroom or school say about the learning you want people to do there? 

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