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How we design 21st century learning environments matters. This is just one of the key messages that Bridgitte Alomes, CEO of Natural Pod and President of Green Schools National Network (GSNN), conveyed in her keynote address at the 8th Canadian EdTech Leadership Summit on November 6th, 2017. A passionate proponent for green schools and a recognized thought leader in environmental design for natural play and children’s environments, Bridgitte’s insight and vision aligned perfectly the summit’s theme, Redefining Schools of the Future. Here, Bridgitte shares highlights from the Summit and how they can be applied to the green schools movement.

What messages did you want to convey in your keynote address?

Twenty-first century learning demands spaces that are more interactive, more collaborative than the traditional “sage on the stage” model. However, many schools have learning environments that do not support the needs of the modern-day student. How can you collaborate if you are stuck sitting in a desk all day, listening to a teacher lecture from the front of the room?

As teaching methods and technology evolves, the physical spaces where our students learn must do so as well. How can we create learning environments that inspire creativity, collaboration, curiosity? By making sure these environments have intention, a purpose. When I walk into a space, I like to ask myself a series of questions: Am I inspired to be here? Does everything in this space have a purpose? How is it being used? Do I feel welcomed here? Believe it or not, students ask themselves these very same questions when they walk into a classroom. If they do not feel inspired or welcomed, how can we expect them to learn?

Technology and digital education add another layer of challenge to the equation. From chromebooks and iPads to apps of all types, there is no shortage of technology in schools today. The downside here is the lack of connection that is happening when technology is in use. Walk into a classroom and it is not uncommon to encounter complete silence as students stare intently at the screens of their iPads working through a lesson without communicating among each other. In an economy that is increasingly driven by collaboration and teamwork, it is more important than ever that students connect with and within their learning environments, so they develop the soft skills necessary to excel in the 21st century workplace. Social interaction, group play, physical and emotional involvement – these all play a role in molding students into the strong communicators, solution-oriented problem solvers, and design-oriented thinkers our world needs to co-create a sustainable future. Having learning environments that are interactive, dynamic, and flexible is key to realizing these positive outcomes.

How does infusing intention into school design align with growing the green schools movement?

GSNN and our allies in the movement are disruptors, we have been from the beginning. We are asking the questions few others have the courage to ask, or even consider, around sustainability in schools and how this plays into education reform. We are growing the conversation by encouraging teachers, school leaders, and students to think outside the box in terms of how sustainability can drive innovation in the K-12 education space. We need to continue these conversations, yes, and make sure that when we talk about learning environments we ask ourselves the tough questions, like: Do we really know where things like building materials and furniture come from? What are they made of? How do they impact learning, the environment?

What can GSNN (and the green schools movement) learn from Education for Sustainability efforts in Canada?

Let the voice of students be heard. Canadian educators and school leaders who have embraced Education for Sustainability principles are using innovative curriculum to empower students to find their voice, deepen their engagement in sustainability and environmental initiatives, and choose career paths that support co-creating a sustainable future. U.S. educators and school leaders need to learn how to listen to and meet their students’ needs so that they can become the change agents of the future.

What are your key takeaways from attending the Canadian EdTech Leadership Summit?

First, that we need to be mindful of technology and its benefits and learn how to balance this within environments that are creative, flexible, and collaborative. On a related note, when we design learning environments, we must bring the outdoors in – this includes providing more access to nature, more daylight, and more opportunities to interact with nature and natural materials. Sustainability needs to be integrated top-down and bottom-up across all areas of a school system to truly work and be sustainable for the long-term. There is no other way around it. This is an exciting time for the movement, yet there is so much to do, to share, and to discuss. As the CEO of Natural Pod and GSNN’s President, I look forward to advancing the conversation, raising awareness, making lasting change happen for our schools, our educators, and most of all, our students.