Case study: EDUSPACES21 – Learning Environments of the 21st Century
OEE interviewed Marcin Polak from the Think! Foundation to learn more about the inspirational project EDUSPACES21 whose aim was to transform schools’ educational spaces to facilitate learning.
Can you tell us a little bit about your organisation and the kind of work you do?
Think! Foundation is a non-profit NGO operating from Warsaw, Poland. It aims to support the development of young people and adults through education programmes and information and communication technologies (ICT). Our objectives are to:
- design and implement innovative forms of learning (e-learning, m-learning) through various education programmes and initiatives (with the help of ICT in line with the SAMR concept);
- strengthen and develop 21st century competences among society members (including planned use of ICT tools and mass media);
- monitor global trends in education and develop analytical work for the development of the education system in Poland.
The most important target groups for Think! Foundation are students at schools and universities, and teachers. I am the chairperson of the Foundation’s Council and one of its founders.
The EDUSPACES21 project was funded by the Erasmus+ programme. It was designed and implemented by a consortium of four organisations:
- Centre for Citizenship Education (Poland)
- Think! Foundation (Poland)
- RAU (Sweden)
- Hanseatic Institute for Entrepreneurship and Regional Development (Germany)
What is the EDUSPACES21 project and what issues did you want to address with it?
The EDUSPACES21 project was developed by a group of education specialists from Poland, Sweden and Germany. Education is a fascinating process both from the learner’s and the teacher’s perspective; but in many cases, didactics and a good teacher-student relationship are not the only necessary success factors for developing competencies. The learning environment where the teacher and the students spend most of their time has a big impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of learning.
We are witnessing a rapid development of education technologies and modern forms of didactics, but in many cases, these new approaches cannot be successfully implemented because schools are not organised to use that educational potential. By developing EDUSPACES21 we wanted to focus on four dimensions of educational spaces that are to be considered by head teachers and teachers if they really want to be successful in teaching children and youth growing up in the Information Society.
Schools of the International Education Foundation, Poland. Photo: CC-BY Marcin Polak
Educational space does not only refer to the physical dimension or architecture, as many people would think. This is only part of a larger construct. We have two more dimensions that are usually present in schools: one is created by educational technology (virtual learning spaces) and the other is the social relations inside and outside the classroom or even outside the school (social and cultural spaces).
These three dimensions must be embedded in a meta-dimension, which is pedagogy. You can have the newest, most modern school building but still, there might be 19th-century learning processes occurring inside. That is why it is important to focus on the learning environment and design it to have the best possible pedagogy for learners of the 21st Century.
How important are learning spaces to the learning/teaching process?
Changing the learning environment can truly benefit young learners and empower them not only with knowledge and competencies, but also with joy and valuable human relations. However, it is not as easy as one may think. To ensure that the changes in the school are not only changes of aesthetics, all actions must take into account the primary objective: the didactics. We can change schools in a thousand ways, but changes that support better, more effective and enjoyable learning are those that are most justified.
Learning space in a secondary school in Ruda Śląska, Poland. Photo: CC-BY Iza Wyppich
A school design project begins with the design of the learning process and not the design of the physical space in which this process occurs. Education first, followed by smaller and larger forms of architecture, not the other way around (which is quite a common mistake). The beginning of a successful educational space design – no matter how wide the scope – should be a school debate that would deal with a vision of the transformed place in the context of the whole educational activity of the institution. This conversation should also not be omitted when building or refurbishing existing buildings. Visions developed in a wider circle make the realisation of these goals easier and allow to embed changes in pedagogy, as well as to better understand the challenges that young students will face in the future.
What were some of the bigger challenges during your project?
The project was not difficult to implement. However, you can write a lot about educational spaces and probably you will miss a lot of great schools and school communities who know how to use their learning spaces effectively. That was a kind of challenge – finding schools to present in our guidebooks. Some of them were good practice cases. It is always difficult to get a shortlist with best cases that fit in a project concept you designed.
Learning space in a School Complex in Radowo Mały, Poland. Photo: CC-BY Marcin Polak
Tell us about the measurable results of the project
EDUSPACES21 has not been widely promoted in EU countries yet but it gives a valuable input in a debate on the modernisation of school systems. This modernisation which cannot be done from the top down, as an order from the ministry of education, but should developed from grassroots, as a school community reform. Here are some stats about the project:
- four EDUSPACES21 Guidebooks for schools in English, four in Polish, three in German, one in Swedish;
- over 50,000 web visits from all around the world (Eduspaces.eu);
- one international conference with over 150 participants.
What did you like most about the project? Any fond memories?
What I loved about the project was the opportunity to see great pedagogical ideas implemented in schools and understand how they work on a daily basis in their learning environments. We had the chance to see and discuss various approaches to learning environments and document them for the benefit of other schools. This is a kind of idea-sharing project on how a learning-friendly school could look like. There are tens of ideas in our guidebooks that you can choose from and try to implement in other schools or education institutions.
Natural laboratory in Junior Highschool 55, Bronx, New York. Photo: CC-BY Marcin Polak
We had the opportunity to visit more than 50 schools in Poland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands. They were selected based on specific features that we considered important for the project results. There were many famous, well-known European schools (for example, Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum in Berlin, Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam, Vittra Telefonplan in Stockholm, Orestad College in Kopenhagen, ESSA Academy in Bolton) as well as many smaller schools that were true educational jewels that are still not known to the wider audience, even in their own countries. My best memories come from visiting these schools and meeting the people there.