It’s easy to focus on what we teach and how we teach, but where we teach is often overlooked.

We need to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist and for a world that is rapidly evolving. While no one can predict what the future will look like, we can set students on a path for success by unlocking their creative potential.

One of the best ways to foster creativity is to provide conditions in which all learners can develop ideas, solve problems, connect, learn, and adapt.

Here are 5 ways you can create spaces in your school that unlock creativity in students and teachers, encourage collaboration, and foster project-based learning.

5 ways to unlock creativity

1. Establish a “space matters” mindset
Spaces are important—they shouldn’t be an afterthought.

At Beaver Country Day School in Newton, Mass., we’ve designed all our spaces with our mission in mind and with our students at the forefront of every decision. Most recently, we completed our largest construction project to date—a three-story space that started as a library renovation and concluded as an active Research + Design Center (R+D) that supports multiple learning modalities, provides choice, and fuels creativity.

When designing our R+D Center, rather than predicting how our students and teachers would use the space, we asked them. We had surveys and focus groups and delved into the how, why, and where—where the members of our community like to work, where they feel most creative, and where they learn best. We also observed where our students were actually working and where they were spending their free time in the school.

Now that the R+D Center has been open for more than a year, we’re experiencing the space’s full impact. Our students are responding in ways we had not envisioned. From the day we cut the construction tape, they truly owned the space and we’ve watched as their mindset and skill sets have expanded. They are engaged, inspired, collaborative, empathic, comfortable with unknown outcomes, never formulaic, and open to ambiguity.

And all of this was made possible because we went into the project recognizing we were creating so much more than a building. We were creating a space for learning.

Make it work for you: You don’t need to undergo a large renovation or completely overhaul everything in your school. Recognize that physical space does matter. Ask your students for input on something as simple as the classroom. What would they change? If they could design the perfect classroom, how would it look? Where would they work outside of the classroom? By asking these questions, you’re instilling a space matters mindset and encouraging creativity.

2. Rethink the classroom layout
Close your eyes and picture a classroom. Chances are you imagine a room filled with rows, all facing the same way, with furniture that’s tough to move and a chalkboard at the front.

This is what classrooms have looked like for decades. Classroom design has not advanced in ways that support the type of teaching and learning schools need to provide for current and future students.

Setting up classrooms that place the teacher at the front of the room and students in rows of fixed furniture create conditions for repetitive, individual, and passive work. Work that is not conducive to creative thinking.

So, how do you fix this?

At our school, over the years we replaced individual student desks with flexible, wheeled chairs and desks that we can easily move from individual work to group work.

Simultaneously, we eliminated the front of the room by making all the walls in the classroom writeable and added simple and affordable technologies, such as the Chromecast. Accessible technologies allow students and teachers to focus on the content creation and enable them to think outside the box.

Make it work for you: If replacing furniture isn’t an option in your school, then move the furniture around. Enlist your students to help with how they want the classroom to look. And recognize the classroom doesn’t need to look the same every day. It’s OK to sometimes sit on the floor. It’s OK to sometimes not have a front of the room.

3. Look to the hallways
Students need multiple spaces that drive the creative process and performance and are designed to support different stages of iteration.

At Beaver, our hallways have become active learning spaces where learning spills out of the four walls of the classroom. Students can sit in small groups on benches, plug laptops in, bring portable whiteboards out, and pin up drafts and drawings on tackable surfaces. It’s a place to spread out.

We have also moved away from zoning spaces for specific departments: There is no history department office or math wing. Increasingly, we are asking teachers to collaborate with each other across disciplines and divisions. If we continue to silo teachers according to discipline or grade level, we inhibit opportunities to engage in creative collaboration.

Make it work for you: Get creative with how you think of the space in your school. Take the class out into the hallway, go sit on some steps, head outside. Bringing students into new spaces gets their creativity flowing and encourages collaboration.

4. Have teachers work alongside students and vice versa
Students benefit from working alongside teachers and teachers benefit from working alongside students. They look to each other for inspiration and have the space to engage in real conversations.

At Beaver, students and teachers share meeting spaces. Meeting spaces are designed to support different modes of meetings, ranging from an informal meeting space with soft seating called “The Living Room,” to a more conventional conference room with chairs around a large table called “The Board Room,” to a space equipped with elevated stools around a high-top table, ca;;ed the “Think Tank.” Students observe adults meeting and working, and they have access to the same spaces with the same room-reservation system and are comfortable meeting and working in similar ways.

Make it work for you: Go to a shared space to do your work. Rather than simply always sitting in your classroom or the faculty room, go to a place where the students are working.

5. Create an environment of choice
We learned students want to work in spaces that allow for time in groups to generate ideas and for time alone to focus. In creating research and design levels in our new structure, we strove to establish an environment with choice to support different brain modes, like active group work and individual thinking time. In addition to creating flexible, open, collaborative spaces, we provide private, individual space with reduced visual distraction and ambient noise.

An additional catalyst for creativity is a library with extensive materials. Students use multiple materials for iteration and rapid prototyping, so having everything from foam boards to cardboard to Legos available ensures there’s no limit to their creativity in a project-based learning environment.

Make it work for you: We do our best work when we place the student at the center. It might take a few iterations before you find a setup that works for you and your students. When we designed our new space, we set up sample furniture in various locations and observed how it was used. Some of it was an instant success; some a major flop. By taking the time to watch, we learned a lot about our students, our teachers, and who we are as a school today—and where we want to go.

About the Author:

Nancy Caruso is associate head of school at Beaver Country Day School in Newton, Mass. Joining Beaver in 2006 as the director of admission and financial aid, she has held the role of assistant head since 2009. Caruso leads Beaver’s faculty recruitment and development programs and collaborates with faculty to implement academic initiatives and strategic priorities. She has more than 20 years of experience in the education field. Prior to joining Beaver, she served as assistant head of school at Boston University Academy and held education administration positions at A Better Chance, Inc., and Boston College.


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