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With a new year comes new and re-energized conversations about the direction of education. Due to the unexpected additional challenges that developed because of covid, these conversations are encompassing even more facets than usual and a heightened sense of significance and opportunity.

The first priority is of course to keep students and educators safe. At the start of the pandemic ‘safe’ meant safe from the virus, so learning was taken online and physical distancing measures were put in place. As the situation has progressed there has been the opportunity to take a broader look at how we can not only keep our students and educators safe but also healthy and still engaged in their learning. This inquiry has included looking at the significance of the physical environment. Being a learning space design and furniture company our focus in this conversation is how we can create better learning environments that fully support learners so deep learning can take place and students are engaged in their own education journey. If I were to put forward one big main idea, it would be the adoption of inside/outside learning environments. I’ve always supported this concept, but with the development of the pandemic and the challenges brought up in trying to navigate it, I am now certain indoor/outdoor learning environments offer a real solution, as well as a great opportunity to positively drive education forward while also keeping our school environments safe and healthy for all participants.

To break down why I advocate for this direction, firstly let’s look at where we need education to go and what it needs to provide for our present and future generations. The most pressing issue of course is our climate crisis. It’s a global problem affecting all of humanity and we need collaborative global solutions. Secondly, technology is moving at such a rate that occupations that presently exist may not in a few years, and jobs we can’t yet imagine will become available. In summary, we cannot prepare students for work in the same way we have been doing for decades; education needs an overhaul, and needs it fast. What we need to do is prepare students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, who have the capability to think on their feet, to be nimble and flexible, and to learn what strong leadership looks like. These are big asks, but often the simpler the solution, the better the outcome.

To provide students with these resilient skills to meet global challenges we can’t continue to teach in the same way we have been doing for decades and expect a different result, and the same goes for the environment around them. There is little benefit in instigating a new modality of teaching, but then proceeding in the same physical spaces with hierarchical rows of desks that have been in place since industrialization. For students to become self-led critical thinkers and acquire the flexible skills they need for an uncertain future, they need learning opportunities and environments that support those skills. What that looks like is creating spaces that foster collaboration and creativity by giving students choice in how they learn best. By offering them flexible seating and working surface options, this gives students ownership over their space, putting them at the center of their own inquiry and learning. And if this physical environment also reflects the ecological environment, by being as sustainable as possible, students can really make the cognitive connection between themselves and how they and their actions are connected to the environment, each other, and the greater community. This aids in providing a vision of the future where humanity is working together for a better, equitable future for everyone. To amplify this kind of physical environment that offers greater opportunities for learning inquiry while also providing a safe, healthy space for students AND Educators, is to move towards creating indoor/outdoor learning environments.

This does not mean recreating every environment and spending lots of money. It can start with small steps of simply understanding the benefits of being outside and starting to implement times to be outside. Nor do students need fancy outside desks, they just need the opportunity to be outside. If classrooms can evolve into having large openings so students can seamlessly move between the indoors and outdoors that would be ideal, and as new schools and classrooms are constructed I would strongly advocate for architects to design spaces that way.

Here is a summary of the researched benefits of outside learning experiences – thanks to the Independent School Parent publication:

  • develop reflective and inquisitive thinking along with problem-solving approaches in ‘real’ situations
  • encourage holistic development of children
  • develop resilience and adaptability in occasionally adverse circumstances
  • allow children to become more able to identify hazards and risks
  • develop a love, appreciation and respect for nature and all that is living
  • develop an understanding of how we can look after our environment
  • develop self-awareness, confidence and self-esteem
  • develop collaborative-working and communication skills
  • provide positive health benefits – both physically and mentally – and assist gross and fine-motor development.

This time during covid is challenging, but those challenges also offer great opportunities to make things better. We have this chance to create better learning environments where learners are deeply supported in their learning, their self-confidence, their health, their future, and how their future can positively interact with everybody else’s future as well.

Below is a wonderful example of inside/outside learning environments created from repurposed shipping containers at Medea Creek Middle School in Oak Park, California.