Avoiding the Learning Space Gap

As the research continues to mount on the importance of intentional learning space design, innovative, progressive, and forward thinking schools are engaging in a change process. They are starting the conversation, budgeting, and planning for their next generation classrooms. This is excellent news for researchers, educators, parents, and students. The unintended consequences of this achievement is the emerging learning space gap.

Like its predecessors the achievement gap, the opportunity gap, and the experience gap, the learning space gap is set to leave hundreds of thousands of classrooms behind. We need to make an effort to bring the learning space design that all kids need to as many classrooms as possible. This means sharing hacks, tips, and tricks that can be implemented without a budget. It means thinking about $500 budgets instead of $50,000. 

We also need to support a “designer’s culture” in all schools. This is a culture where every educator thinks and sees like a designer so that they can be effective for kids with each of their micro-decisions in their learning space.

Equity in learning spaces is essential as we move forward and so many practical things mined from research and translated into “teacher” can help to make this a positive reality for classrooms across the globe.  

The Silence of Survival

After a week in Hawaii, it is clear that the raw natural beauty of this place has drawn many to visit and stay. It is unmatched in any of the states on the mainland. It is both raw and delicate, and it allows the spirit to wander. In contrast, when we look beyond this majestic surface, there is a state of survival similar to the rural and urban cities that we call home. There is an economic poverty that is hidden by the natural beauty and the spirit of the island and its residents. Beyond the main roads, there are houses and properties that speak of survival. There are farmers and merchants that count on every dollar from the weekly farmer's market, and there signs everywhere, when we are awake to see them, that these islands that we visit for pleasure have a deafening silence of survival. It is hard to fully enjoy the experience knowing that a struggle by families and kids hides blocks and streets away. I continue to be surrounded by this juxtaposition, but I'm leaving my heart and mind open, open to the beauty and open to pain. More adventures and more real moments lie ahead. 

What are your space non-verbals saying about your school?

I've been thinking lately about the intersection of the learning spaces and a number of essentials in modern learning environments. This includes how technology best serves learning spaces (excited to announce a big project with Dell around this work very soon) and about communications and branding strategies for school as it relates to learning spaces. This second focus has me thinking about the messaging that "non-verbals" in schools portray. My former superintendent, mentor, and friend has always focused on the importance of how the schools looked even to a point of public criticism about how she spent money on these items. It is becoming clear though that the schools and districts that focus on the messages that their learning spaces portray are gaining the confidence of their communities, showcasing that their mission matters, and engaging in a new form of communication that speaks loudly to teachers, parents, and students. 

Consider the following items as they relate to your messaging as a school district. 

  • The Custodial Closets- Sure, there won't be too many people looking in these spaces, but for those that work from these spaces and those that peer in throughout the day, what does that space say about your school? Does it say we value all of our workers? Does it say that cleaning is a priority? Does it say that we are excellent in all aspects of our work?
  • The Parking Lot- If seen too many parking lots with glass, grass, and garbage as the first thing that I notice. Before anyone walks in your building to learn, they are in your parking lot. It is a first impression sort of location, and it speaks about your work whether you want it to or not.
  • Outside Signage- As a principal, I struggled to make sure that my outdoor sign had missional and relevant information on it, but as you drive around, do you notice signs that have old dates and misspelled words on them? I see them everyday. Your outside signage may be the only message that some get about your school that day. Doesn't it deserve to be excellent?
  • Student Bathrooms- When I visit a school, I make sure that I use the student restrooms instead of the staff bathrooms as I believe it speaks to how much the school truly values its students. Our most basic needs need to happen in a place that you would be happy to showcase to any member of the community. There are too many schools where adults won't use the student restrooms, not because of privacy issues, but because of their state of cleanliness.
  • Ceiling Tiles- I'm haunted by the voices in stained ceiling tiles. The stories that they tell about a school resonates so deeply. They say that their learning spaces have invisible places with invisible messages, and invisible students. Certainly, we can't repair and replace every tile stained every morning, but do you have a system that has them gone in 48 hours. If not, they say a lot about your culture in the building.
  • Entry Ways- The signage in so many school entrances is filled with compliance papers, warnings, and words that point to a culture of no. Have you taken time to audit your entry ways. They brand your buildings. They talk about who you are and what matters, but too often, we fail to see them as essential spaces to learn about the school.
  • Green Spaces- The lawn. The bushes. The physical education fields. What do they say about how you serve kids? Are they a positive messaging platform for your innovation mission as a school. These are subtle, but important considerations as you consider learning space design.
  • Photos- What photos are on display around your school and what do they say about the excellence of your school in the past, present, and future? Are they dusty? Are they images of equity? Can students see themselves in the images?

Consider an audit of your learning spaces and the non-verbals that they project into the community. Bring a critical friend into the mix for this work as too often, our learning spaces become invisible because of their daily familiarity.  

Is Quiet the Next Gap?

As part of writing The Space: A Guide for Educators, Rebecca and I thought about the power of quiet in learning. We discussed how it helps with stress reduction and focus in a noisy world filled with information and screen time. An awareness that schools were losing their quiet places led me to explore how quiet does and doesn't exist in our attention demanding society. My observations continue to lead me to the conclusion that quiet times, quiet spaces, and quiet bodies are growing into a gift for those with means while those that are impacted by poverty struggle for any quiet at all. One example of this happens at the airport. Those with means can choose to be a part of a very quiet business class lounge while others are left to the noisy, overstimulating terminal. Restaurants that are quiet often cater to those with more to spend while fast food is noisy. The houses of those with means are larger with more spaces to get away to quiet. Expensive cars ride quietly. The list goes on and on. As we think about our schools, are we being intentional about not perpetuating the quiet gap? We have a chance to build learning spaces that quiet the world for all kids while still making them active, engaging, and collaborative. 


How many schools expect their partners from the community to listen to their students? Is it part of your agreements that any partnerships coming into your schools must make time to focus group and have genuine conversations with kids? Do you allow your partners to do things for kids as opposed to with kids? Do you have built in processes for empathy to sit at the heart of your partnership? In too many places, partnerships lack any sense of a symbiotic relationship with the students that they serve. Does this lack of relationship create a situation where we are truly "Helping Without Hurting"? As we begin to wrap more and more resources and experts around our schools, we need to continue to make sure that we are building purposeful partnership that can sustain and grow a healthy school culture in the making.