What Can Google Teach Us About Designing Project-Based Learning Environments?

by | Feb 10, 2019 | Equity and Excellence, Instructional Strategies, School Improvement, Students At Risk

When I visit a classroom, the first thing I do is look at the furniture, floor, lighting, the art and student work on the walls, and the positioning of the teacher’s desk. I listen and learn about the space and the integral players. Before I think about content or curriculum, before I think about pedagogy and classroom management, I think about the setting and the context it is creating. Spaces have power.

Today, the world’s most powerful innovators are revolutionizing the way work environments are designed. For example, in Google’s New York City office, everything from the corridors and ornaments to the colors of paint is carefully curated, and each workspace is designed to stimulate critical engagement, creativity, and meaningful social interaction with colleagues, including those in other departments and teams. The work environment Google is attempting to create is set up to encourage certain ways of thinking and behaving. Moreover, it’s also trying to communicate to the people who work there that they and their contributions matter.

This is what a Project Based Learning classroom anchored in equity, equality and inclusion must also do. Because when a student first steps into a room they will make a judgment about the type of class they are in just like I did. They’ll look at the furniture and what’s on the walls, and they’ll look to see the position of the teacher’s desk. They’ll assess the classroom as an environment. They’ll ask themselves those universal existential questions: Is it safe? Do I belong?

A classroom communicates to students in nonverbal but meaningful ways whether or not they are included and valued. For this reason, a Project Based Classroom is unique in many ways. Primarily, a PBL Classroom is a space of innovation where the physical manifestations of economic, demographic and cultural forces are valued and represented in authentic ways. In other words, a PBL classroom must be anchored within and a reflection of students’ needs, aesthetics, cultures, and their communities and, like Google’s offices, it must stimulate curiosity and critical engagement and meaningful social interactions. However, what if your school doesn’t have Google money, the resources to fund reimagining your classroom’s design? After all, what public school district in America has the extra money lying around to buy state of the art furniture and posters and plants and lights, and all of the ephemera needed to redesign classrooms to be inclusive and sensitive and thus reflecting our students?

Because a Project Based Classroom considers every obstacle a project in disguise, this limitation, presented and properly framed by the teacher, is the class’s first project. The students will design the class. This idea of students taking ownership and designing their learning space is supported by research. In “The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management Strategies on Well-Being and Productivity” Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, shared that when given the opportunity to arrange a small office, workers were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this control.[1]32 percent more productive. Imagine what that might look like in student improvements in the academic and soft skill components of a project.

Recently, I was taking a Philosophy of Education Course at High Tech High’s Credentialing program, and the teacher and artist and one of the leaders of the course, Enrigue “Chikle” Lugo, said, “Students are not our future. They’re our present, our right here and now. It’s true.”

If Chikle is right, and I believe he is, and research proves that the psychological lift that comes from feeling respected enhances engagement, then before any learning begins, this is what the environment of a Project Based Classroom must communicate to students.

Author: Matthew Goodman was nominated for an Alex Award by the American Library Association for Hold Love Strong which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers book, and a USA Today New Voices Pick.  He has worked in various roles in the field of education such as an Humanities High School Teacher responsible for applying design-based thinking strategies in a project-based learning curriculum to implement inclusive and differentiated instructional strategies to create a classroom environment that was equitable and responsive to the needs of all students.  In addition, he developed and co-created a partnership to support an inquiry-based curriculum for high school students with San Diego State University’s SDSU Press.  Matthew, also spearheaded and collaborated on innovative community-based solutions for people on the spectrum of the criminal and juvenile justice systems.  He taught in the English Department and served on the advisory council that helped to reshape the strategic vision of Colegio Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile.  

The Center for Student Achievement Solutions provides technical assistance, professional development, and coaching support to create schools and classroom environments that are equitable and inclusive.