5 lessons from the classroom—for the workplace

7403731050_9a1ee480de_zPhoto by audiolucistore

There’s no doubt that today’s school designs are taking many cues from today’s workplaces. But are there also important lessons we can learn from teachers and students, about work? We think there are!

For starters, here are five truths great teachers know that translate to the workplace. Once you get going down this road, you’ll probably think of even more. Share them with us in the comments!

1. Different people are, well, different.

Teachers have long understood that different kids learn in different ways. Most researchers refer to three different learning styles: Visual, kinesthetic, and auditory.

So what makes us think that we outgrow our natural learning styles when we become adults? Or that all adults work best in the same exact way? Workplaces, just like classrooms, need to consider different learners when designing their spaces—especially kinesthetic learners who need movement for their brains to function at their best.

For more teaching tips for all three types of learners, check out this post.

2. Energy is a positive thing—it shouldn’t be squelched.

Teachers know better than anyone that there are certain children who have trouble sitting still. And we all know there are certain times of day when it’s hard for almost anyone to sit still. Just reading the following description of a traditional classroom format is enough to make many (if not most) of us fidget and squirm:

Peek into most American classrooms and you will see desks in rows, teachers pleading with students to stay in their seats and refrain from talking to their neighbors. Marks for good behavior are rewarded to the students who are proficient at sitting still for long periods of time.” (The Atlantic)

But today’s best teachers, like Dawn Casey-Rowe who wrote the Edudemic post “Avoiding Back to School Brainfreeze,” know it’s possible to harness all that that energy rather than fight it:

By planning active classes, the can’t-sit-stills use their energy and add to the class…. Positive energy can be harnessed into learning.” (Or working!)

3. Spaces have the power to promote engagement.

Educational research shows that how the classroom is designed, and how much freedom children have within that space, can make all the difference in student engagement, which can make all the difference in student success.

In fact, according to a FastCoDesign article, research found that “classroom design could be attributed to a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year.” 

Workplaces should take a cue from the research and consider how the design of our workspaces might be impacting engagement—and success—at work.

4. Offering choices increases ownership.

The link between “ownership” and “learning” is often overlooked, but it’s important, as Annie Murphy Paul explains in her post “Designing the classroom to enhance learning.”

“Design features that allowed pupils to feel a sense of ownership towards their classroom also helped them to learn…. Pupils benefited from a range of activity zones within a single classroom, allowing different types of learning to take place at the same time.”

In workplaces, offering a variety of choices of where to work is becoming increasingly important. That sense of choice and ownership impacts people in a variety of ways, from physical wellness and concentration to collaboration.

Another recent article at the website Edudemic encourages teachers to ask questions like these when they’re arranging furniture and setting up their classrooms:

“Is your management style and space designed to keep students quiet and in their place, or does it give permission and ownership to the students? What choices do students have about where and how they work? Do you want your students to feel free, creative and enabled? Or, structured, restricted and rule-bound?”

Those same questions might be good ones to ask within the workplace, as well—just read the above paragraph again, replacing “students” with “employees.”

5. Movement is the key to health—and learning.

“Give students the chance to get out of their seats. Movement does wonders for the brain!” says a fifth grade teacher in an Edudemic article about engaging students in the classroom. 

“Movement is the key to learning,” another article explains. “Students cannot sit still for very long before the blood and oxygen flow to their brains significantly slows down, thereby slowing down the learning process.”

And a 2008 study found that many children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task.

As we grow into adulthood, we definitely get better at sitting still, thanks to cultural norms and our slowing metabolisms. But that doesn’t mean we are completely different creatures than we were as school children. We still think and learn in different ways; we still have energy that can be channeled for good; we still like having options and ownership; and the spaces we spend most of our days in still impact our bodies and minds, for better or worse.

Most importantly, our bodies still function in the same general ways: Movement increases blood flow, which sharpens your mind—whether you’re five or 50, in a classroom or a workplace.

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A design industry give-away that gives back

As everyone in the Architecture and Design world knows, swag and give-aways are fool-proof ways to catch your market’s eye. But what would happen if the give-away was also a give-back?

This was a question izzy+ started asking a year ago as we made plans for our annual Valentine’s Day promotion, which introduces a new izzy+ product to nearly 5,000 interior designers each February. Sure, the event should include colorful izzy+ bags and custom-made chocolates (it is Valentine’s Day, after all), but what if instead of doing a drawing for something flashy, like plane tickets to anywhere in the world or the newest Apple gear, we gave away something that would support our corporate values around giving back?

“The big prizes we had done the last couple of years were flashy, but there’s no substance,” says Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist and learning expert. “We wanted to promote the ideas we care about most, like giving back, supporting relationships, and offering opportunities for unexpected learning.”

So, during February of 2012, members of the interior design community were given not just chocolate and other goodies, but also a chance to go on an izzy+-sponsored trip to Nicaragua. Over 1,700 designers indicated interest in the promotion, 80 of whom later followed up by filling out a questionnaire about themselves and their interest in the trip. On November 1, six interior designers from around the U.S. flew to Nicaragua, joining Brandon and Jill Horning of the izzy+ team, along with two members of the Grand Valley State University Applied Global Innovation Initiative, which played a key role in planning and laying the groundwork for the trip. The group just returned from their giving-back adventure on November 6.

The main goal in Nicaragua, Brandon says, was helping a group of teachers in the North Central town of Esteli design and build learning toolkits for young students. The izzy+ group had to think through the interior and exterior designs of the kits and how the curriculum could best be organized.

“We’re trying to make the learning experience more inspiring and engaging for the students,” Brandon says. “Designers have great skills and an understanding for what sparks people’s curiosity and engagement. Watching these designers work side-by-side with elementary teachers who make one or two dollars a day—it was just amazing to see everyone work together to really make a difference in such a short amount of time.”

The available resources for most teachers in Nicaragua are so limited, Brandon adds, saying that many schools are little more than metal shacks with dirt floors. Students often have to bring their own chairs from home.

The izzy+ group also contributed to the design of a building that is being converted into a new learning center in Esteli. Leveraging the skills of the designers, Brandon says they reviewed architects’ construction plans then focused on providing recommendations for one aspect of the interior—creating an entrance that would be welcoming and inspiring.

In addition to the design work they did, the izzy+ group toured other schools, visited local markets and a sustainable coffee farming community, experienced cultural traditions like the holiday known as Day of the Saints, and shared meals with many local business people, leaders, teachers and university administrators.

Karin Dax, a designer from Boston, said the trip was an “amazing experience.”

“As soon as I heard about the trip I thought ‘I definitely want to do that,’” says Karin, who is an avid traveler and a fluent Spanish speaker. Helping to design the learning kits was a highlight, she says. “Once we started to understand our role and our goals, and we began talking to the teachers more about what they needed, it was really easy to contribute—we just had to dive in and use our skills to help make their vision a reality.”

And the positive effects of this trip will continue to ripple out—not only for the communities in Nicaragua the izzy+ team visited, but also for the designers back home.

“I think a trip like this puts our everyday lives into perspective,” Karin says. “In Nicaragua, the questions are, ‘Do they have running water and food? Are they able to learn what they need to learn to have a sustainable future?’ Then you come home and a client is upset about a paint color not being quite right. It makes you take a step back and realize all that we have. You reevaluate what’s important, what matters most, and what kind of work you want to be doing.”

As far as izzy+ is concerned, these types of giving-back trips are definitely a part of the company’s future.

“Giving back is a core value that runs deep at izzy+—all the way to our parent company, JSJ,” says Brandon. “And this trip reminded me of an important lesson: Bringing together a creative group of people to help support meaningful causes is extremely addicting. I cannot wait to host a similar trip again.”

Moving away from one-size-fits-all learning, technology & spaces

What does the future of learning look like?

In the minds of many, it looks high tech and new—a complex array of technology and apps waiting to be woven into traditional curricula and classrooms.

Others believe the future of learning should more closely mimic the ways people learned long ago—more collaboration, more Socratic dialogue, and more opportunities for hands-on discovery.

At izzy+, we think the key is balancing the two—utilizing time-tested person-to-person learning approaches, along with the best advances technology has to offer.

Brandon Reame, izzy+’s Market Development Strategist and education research guru, says schools and colleges just need to ensure that two critical components exist: a focus on people, and plenty of flexibility inherent in the learning spaces.

“The important thing is that learning needs to move away from a one-size-fits-all model,” says Reame. “The most effective learning happens when the students, along with their lives and circumstances, are taken into account. Sure, there are lots of trends in education, but if you just apply them across the board you’re not going to get great results. At the end of the day, it has to be about the students and their engagement. How do you leverage technology, pedagogy, and the learning environment to create a more engaging learning experience?”

Over the past few generations, a move toward one-size-fits-all education has gradually become a system that some compare to a factory, as a recent Fast Company article, “Replacing The Classroom-As-Factory With Collaborative Learning,” suggests.

Reame says technology provides a variety of tools to help move teaching and learning away from a factory model. Technology, after all, allows people to learn anywhere at any time, at their own pace and in their own way, accessing more information and connecting with more people than ever. The challenge, however, is to make sure these new approaches are applied in meaningful ways and in tech-friendly, flexible learning spaces.

“Technology is more mobile than ever, and students are more tech-savvy than ever,” Ream says. “Those changes generate a greater need for new, inspiring learning spaces that offer lots of flexibility. There needs to be a mix of formal and informal learning spaces, with opportunities for small groups to gather, professors to guide discussions, and people to relax and catch up on reading and thinking on their own. Integrating technology isn’t just about having places to plug in. It’s about how people learn and interact.”

Because learning, at the end of the day, is about people, just like izzy+ has always been about people first, not furniture. That’s why we think this sentiment from the post “Are Kids Really Motivated By Technology?” is a great one for designers, teachers, parents and everyone to keep in mind as students across the country head back to school:

…finding ways to motivate students in our classrooms shouldn’t start with conversations about technology. Instead, it should start with conversations about our kids. What are they deeply moved by? What are they most interested in? What would surprise them? Challenge them? Leave them wondering? Once you have the answers to these questions — only after you have the answers to these questions — are you ready to make choices about the kinds of digital tools that are worth embracing.

The Dewey Connection Cart and 6-Top Table help instructors integrate technology into the classroom while ensuring students are able to easily converse and collaborate.

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Several Dewey 6-Top Tables can be pushed together for flexible, collaborative set ups. Dewey Connection Carts and Lecterns help instructors integrate technology.

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Comfortable third spaces, like this one featuring Harter Forum lounge seating, are critical in learning environments because they accommodate both informal gatherings and solo study time.

Technology and human interaction: better blended together

It happens every day: We’re working through a problem or wondering about a fact, and mere seconds later we have answers. Learning today is easier than ever. Information is at your fingertips when you’re holding nothing more than a smart phone in your hand, and even university classes (like the new offerings recently announced through MIT and Harvard) are readily available.

But as some things about learning become more simple, other aspects become more complex. What do we lose when we replace face-to-face interactions with face-to-computer-screen time? Is information valuable on its own, or are conversation and collaboration required to fully leverage it? How can we make the most of all that technology offers without losing the important interactions that have always shaped working and learning experiences?

“Blended Learning” is an educational approach that strives to answer those very questions—it’s all about finding the right balance between human interaction and technology. In education, the Blended Learning equation looks like this: Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment (see the Edutopia link at the end of the post for more on that). In other words, online and face-to-face interactions are stronger when blended together than they are apart.

Not surprisingly, many Blended Learning principles apply to the workplace and to life in general (after all, we never stop learning). At izzy+, we care a lot about this because we’re big fans of learning and technology, and even bigger fans of people. Finding the right balance—one that makes the most of available tech innovations and also makes the most of what it means for people to be Better Together—plays a big part in how we think about designing for the future of work and learning.

izzy+ founder Chuck Saylor says that making the most of available technology and knowledge requires making the time and space to interact with people.

“I love all the ways technology helps us enrich our learning experiences, but I’m not sure the transfer of knowledge and information on the Internet can ever be as powerful as two people sitting down together,” Saylor says. “When people are interacting, they’re compounding all that knowledge by layering in their own experiences and life stories.”

And even though technology makes it possible for us to work and learn anywhere—we are no longer confined to desks, offices and classrooms—at the same time we need to be somewhere. Saylor says we should be more concerned than ever about our spaces. They should inspire creativity, learning, and connection with others, as well as support technology.

“The right spaces are so important when it comes to reaching this Blended Learning balance,” Saylor says. “Spaces that support both technology and dialogue help you maintain that balance—the ability to layer and enrich information and ideas. It’s a powerful learning combination.”

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Want to learn more? Of course you do! (And then you’ll want to sit down with someone to talk about it over coffee, right?)

– For a great overview of Blended Learning in the education environment, check out this Edutopia post.

– For more about the recent announcement of edX, the new nonprofit partnership to offer free online courses from M.I.T. and Harvard, read this New York Times article.

– Here’s a great book to read about how places and spaces affect us: The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions, by Winifred Gallagher.

– And if you want to learn more about our line of Dewey products (pictured above), visit the “learning” section of our website. Dewey was designed specifically to support human connection and technology in all types of learning environments.

Chocolate, love, and…learning?

Roses, chocolates, romantic candle-lit dinners—sounds like the perfect setting for a business to stay out of, right?

Well, it depends how you frame Valentine’s Day.

While the romantic take on February 14 is still plenty popular, many others—especially younger couples and singles—are opting to simply ignore what’s often thought of as a “Hallmark holiday.” But what if we thought of Valentine’s Day, instead, as an opportunity to celebrate relationships of all kinds—a day that’s all about not being an island, but being Better Together?

At izzy+, we’ve been working to reframe Valentine’s Day since 2006, when Harter began its annual February promotional. What we’ve discovered along the way is that the traditional aspect of giving at this time of year is still essential—we like to substitute the roses with the giving of time and ideas, but some of the other goodies stay (especially the chocolate!). We also think it’s important to add a second component to the giving: learning.

So Valentine’s Day can be about giving, sharing, and learning? Yes!

Learning and sharing, after all, go hand-in-hand. Learning to share is one of the first social skills we develop as children. As adults, we tend to be good at sharing things, but we often overlook how important it is to share ideas, stories, and our time.

When you flip the sentence—sharing to learn—you get to the heart of why sharing can be so powerful. When someone else shares their perspective, it stretches us outside of our comfort zones, helping us see a problem from a new angle and learn in ways we couldn’t have on our own. It’s what being Better Together is all about.

Let’s take all of that sharing and learning to another country!

Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about how, as a company, we can facilitate even more giving, sharing and learning, and tie it all into Valentine’s Day. Our annual holiday event traditionally involves giving back. This year, not only are we sharing the love by making donations to the children’s literacy organization RIF, we’re also giving our customers an opportunity to join members of the izzy+ team on the ultimate learning and giving adventure—in Nicaragua! In addition to learning about another culture together, we’ll spend some time giving to others in need, through service-oriented work. It’s just one more way to bring people together to share and learn.

What are your thoughts about reframing Valentine’s Day and demonstrating Better Together in new ways? However you go about it, we’re glad you’re out there sharing the love! Happy Valentine’s Day!

The shift away from teaching and managing (toward something more inspiring)

Quick: Think back to your favorite teachers or professors. What made them so great?

We asked this question recently on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s some of what people said:

– “openness to the ideas of others”

– “more interested in posing interesting questions than handing out answers”

– “encouraging, challenging, motivated and inspired”

– “caring, fun, motivating”

– “sense of humor and sardonic wit”

– “believed in me more than I believed in myself”

– “challenging projects that were quick and unique”

– “he lives the story, constantly challenges the norm, and believes students can accomplish anything”

A variety of views are represented, but there is a red thread to be teased out: Great teachers seem to be characterized by interaction with their students, not authority over them.

That’s exactly what izzy+ founder and CEO Chuck Saylor remembers about his favorite teachers, and it’s exactly why he thinks we need to reconsider the label “teacher” altogether.

“I’m not sure I believe in the idea of any one person ‘teaching’ people anything and then walking out of the room,” says Saylor. “It doesn’t fit with what learning means in the 21st century. The era of expertise is over.”

The Move From One-Directional To Multi-Directional Learning

More and more, the focus is shifting away from the teaching and toward the learning—in other words, away from an idea of a knowledge center or authority. The same sort of shift needs to happen in the workplace, where Saylor has a similar aversion to the word “manager.” Teaching and managing are one-directional, Saylor explains, while learning and growing are multi-directional.

“It’s not about managing people, it’s about collaborating with them, just like it’s not about teaching people, it’s about learning and growing together. It’s about coaching, mentoring, interaction, and shared experiences. This translates all the way up through life, not just in school. We have to shift our focus and get it right.”

The Role Of Space Design In Learning

One of the most important places to begin this shift is in the design of spaces for learning, working, and meeting. Environments that are set up to allow and even encourage interaction are key to increasing a transparent sharing of ideas and, ultimately, to developing intelligence.

“The more we find ourselves in places that allow us to share knowledge and ideas, the more our understanding grows,” Saylor says. “We are scalable—our minds are scalable. The growth is directly proportional to how much we interact and exchange information with others.”

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For more information around these ideas, Chuck Saylor recommends the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by Liz Wiseman. The book’s premise is that “multipliers” are leaders who inspire and stretch others, making them smarter and more capable. Being this kind of leader (or teacher), Wiseman says, involves disciplines like optimizing talent, creating intensity, extending challenges, encouraging debate, and instilling ownership. In other words, it involves inspiring and engaging people, not managing them.

The Dewey 6-Top table by Fixtures (above) prompts interaction and brings people closer together around ideas—in learning settings as well as workplaces.

Many of our concept pieces, like the Nemo bar and arbor pictured above, are all about gathering people in casual “third spaces,” whether they’re working independently or having impromptu meetings and conversations.

From house building to music recording: How active learning is shaping the classroom

Most students in traditional classrooms have no problem identifying the difference between “learning” and “doing,” or “teacher” and “student.”

But on Habitat for Humanity work sites, those lines are blurred. Volunteers don’t learn a skill and then do it, they learn as they do it. Similarly, someone who is a “learner” in the morning might be a “teacher” after lunch.

“Every day there’s all kinds of teaching and learning going on at our work sites,” says Chris Hall, Director of Construction Operations at Habitat for Humanity Kent County, in West Michigan. “Every site is staffed by a professional builder with all the skills, but it’s really an organic learning process. Sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes you’re the student.

When People and Disciplines Collaborate, More Learning Happens

The teaching and learning takes on a slightly more formal bent through the Habitat chapter’s collaborations with local schools. Students who take the “New Construction” course at Grand Rapids Community College apply their knowledge about sustainable building to Habitat homes; a Grand Rapids Public School magnet called the Academy of Design and Construction also extends its classrooms to Habitat building sites (pictured above).

“These days, with green building practices, you have to see the home as a living, breathing organism,” says Hall. “Everything is interconnected—it’s not just about physics, or just about geography or math. When the students work on these projects they can see how everything ties together.”

And at the end of the day, they can also point to what their knowledge helped them make.

“There’s something special that happens on a Habitat site, with everyone learning and working together,” Hall says.

Engaging Students with Hands-on Learning

This level of engagement and concrete accomplishment are also at the heart of a new Youth Recording Arts Academy—a joint project of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center and the Mackinaw Harvest professional recording studio. The intense, 12-week program focuses on hands-on work and experimentation in the recording studio, as well as developing “soft skills” like reliability and teamwork.

Laurie Cirivello of the Community Media Center has witnessed the benefits of active learning, both in the at-risk teens at the Academy, and as a parent to two non-traditional learners.

“Hands-on learning is so important—at the end of the day to be able to point to something and say, ‘I did this.’ My kids thrived on that,” Cirivello says. “With these kids, if we just keep saying, ‘Stay in school, stay in school’ with only the promise of ‘Someday you’ll get to do something that will rock your world,’ it isn’t going to work. They need to be engaged now.”

How the Shift Toward Active, Social Learning is Impacting Classrooms

Allison Roon, an interior designer, adjunct professor and long-time izzy+ consultant, says there’s an entire field of study backing up why learning is more effective when it’s more active. Roon, who has a Master’s degree in Adult and Higher Education, says “active learning” is all about students creating meaning through experiences and reflection (she cites scholar and professional consultant L. Dee Fink).

“Adult students, in particular, need to feel a personal connection to the learning that is happening for it to be meaningful,” Roon says. “And we’re not only moving away from teacher-centered education, but today’s student-centered models are also being joined by more informal, social, collaborative styles of learning outside classrooms.”

Not surprisingly, all of these shifts in teaching and learning ultimately impact built learning environments—whether you’re looking at more flexible and collaborative ways to design classrooms or you’re creating cafes and lounges that encourage informal learning and conversation. Roon says universities across the country are starting to minimize their number of traditional classroom spaces to allow for greater informal learning spaces. Some schools in Europe have even hit a 60 to 40 ratio of formal to informal spaces.

“The future of learning involves figuring out how to turn all of these experiences into meaningful learning,” says Roon. “izzy+ focuses a lot of time and thought on this—not just in classrooms, but also when it comes to creating informal, inspiring places that encourage people to come together to share ideas, be creative and learn.”

For more on our learning products and research, be sure to check out the Learning section of our website.

Students learn and share in an izzy+-designed “third space” at the Borough of Manhattan Community College

Students at Atlanta Technical College collaborate around Dewey tables by izzy+