Saturday, 1 June 2013

Teaching Environments - Making Space for a Positive Culture

This week's #ukfechat was on the subject of teaching environments, which is another important aspect in establishing a positive culture for both students and staff. This post includes some fascinating examples that educators may find useful.

What would Google Do?
In his book "Are you Smart Enough to Work for Google" William Poundstone details how Googleplex is a cornucopia of amenities for their employees. There are;
  • 11 gourmet restaurants (which are free)
  • Climbing walls 
  • Swimming pools 
  • Mural size whiteboards for sharing spontaneous thoughts
  • Ping pong, table football and air hockey tables.
  • Free laundry machines 
  • Foreign language lessons 
  • Car washes and oil changes. There is a shuttle service between home and work
  • Communal scooters for use on campus. 
  • New parents get $500 for takeaway meals and 18 weeks’ leave to bond with their infant.
  • All employees get an annual ski trip.
Poundstone goes on to highlight that these perks aren’t necessarily about generosity, it’s good business for Google to offer such benefits in an industry so dependent on attracting top talent.

Now if colleges were to offer these kind of services, for some reason, there would be an outcry about the use of public funds... But these kind of benefits keep employees happy and keep everyone else with their noses pressed against the glass, surely this could only be a good thing for education? ...Its not outwith the realms of possibility, given that there are initiatives like the one in Newark where teachers are given accommodation rent free... These are the types of initiatives that could help to "unslum" deprived areas.

Cultivating a positive culture is something that most of the tech companies obsess about, this includes the way they design and usitilse space. 

My Pad
Any team is affected by their work environment and the work space can have a strong influence on how well a team functions. Jay Elliot, Apple Vice President, details how the physical setting is part of creating the right atmosphere. 

In 1981, the Mac group that Steve Jobs was working with moved into a new building. The center piece of the new building was a large atrium, which had a piano, video games, and a huge fridge stocked with bottles of juice and quickly became a place for the employees to meet and hang out. On display in the atrium was Steve’s old original BMW motorcycle, still in mint condition – a symbol of great design and functionality but also a symbol that this particular team had a very different kind of leader. 

When employees needed a breather people were drawn to the atrium, it was a gathering spot to relax, it was a great place for sharing what you were working on, what you needed, what challenges you were facing. A gathering place like the this helps everyone get a sense that they aren’t alone. A problem facing one part of the team is a problem for everyone.

As well as looking at successful tech companies I find it useful to compare other types of education institutions.

Space to Think
On my travels its difficult not to notice the difference between private education, red brick unis and other education institutions. When I visited Cambridge for the first time I was struck by how iydillic the parks were - fantastic spaces for study, reflection and contemplation. The best park in Glasgow is on the door step of Glasgow University. 

I am sure I don't need to go into too much detail regarding the grand buildings, the sprawling, well kept grounds and facilities that private education have access to.

You also can't escape noticing how the landscape changes as you enter some inner city areas. Andrew Mawson details the impact that this has on people;

“The environments we live, work and play in profoundly affect how we are as human beings and how we relate to each other. I learned this from Bromley-in-Bow. It was such a dump down there when I first arrived. We were determined to create a really nice space. As I began to deliver this, I realised that people took it as a sign of respect for themselves and their children – they felt they were being taken seriously. 

When we are careful about the way we create a physical environment, when we pay attention to every detail of it, people start to think about themselves and each other differently. What was becoming clear was how value judgements about Bromley-in-Bow had been keeping it down all these years.

When we later wrote to a government body, outlining our plans to build a top quality restaurant with granite work surfaces and limestone flooring on our site, we received a response telling us that this was far too high quality for such a rundown area. It demonstrated an extraordinarily skewed logic and a total lack of even a fundamental understanding of the human spirit. I was treating people as people; they were treating people like statistics. 

If you give people quality, if you treat them with respect, they will respond in kind. A café that offers people instant coffee in a foam cup gives a very different message from a café that offers them a range of coffee in elegant cups which are nice to drink from, literally and metaphorically. It was all they were worthy of.” Andrew Mawson, The Social Entrepreneur 

Inner Peace
Colleges may be limited in what they can do with the surrounding areas, but they can affect what happens in the college and may find some of these examples surprising, I certainly did.

White Wash
Part of the #ukfechat discussion focused on the role that posters and other positive messages can play, if any. Opinion seemed to be divided on this topic, with some suggesting that the impact can be limited.

With the right kind of campaign, the potential of some psychology based interventions is impressive, and similar results in the UK and FE Colleges could have a real impact. 

I have been involved with a number of Social Norms projects and have read some interesting results based on "Priming." Both interventions have the potential to improve attitudes, behaviour and even exam results. Please see this  post for more details: College Brand and Identity - Just Do It 

Inner Peace - Proximity
Another area that can have some unexpected consequences is the issue of proximity - or "The new science of who sits where at work"

One study that looked at this involved a group of police officers who had just completed their training. The police cadets received a letter from Professor Segal who was doing some sociology research looking into the factors that had contributed to new acquaintances "hitting it off".

When Segal received the surveys back and examined the data she found that biographical data that you'd expect to matter - religious affiliation, age, marital status, ethnic background, hobbies, group membership - had little, if any, predictive value in whether or not two candidates "clicked." But there was one factor that had a huge effect... the first letter of their last name.

The cadets were assigned seats in alphabetical order. When the cadets listed the people with whom they had formed a close relationship, 90% named the individual they sat right next to.  Sit even a couple of chairs further apart and your chances of forming a close relationship with the other person were dramatically diminished.

We usually don't give much thought to where we sit in class or in a meeting. Bit a couple of feet of space can make a world of difference.

Collaboration & Spontaneous Communication 
Another study that produced similar results was Bell Communications Research.

Bell examined 500 research scientists, the majority of whom held advanced degrees in engineering or computer science. They all worked for the same company and were encouraged to collaborate on projects and to publish the results of their cutting edge research.

It looked as though any disadvantage of geographical distance was offset with telecommunications - Email flew between work teams and frequent phone conversations and conference calls allowed everyone to keep in touch. The scientists worked in buildings 40 miles apart but as a group they made significant scientific progress and published numerous articles.

But the pattern of exponential attraction emerges when we look at the research papers published by the scientists. 

If you were to visit one of the scientists sitting at his or her desk and then walk down the corridor, there'd be a 10% chance that we'd bump into someone that scientist has collaborated with. But continue down the corridor and out the main part of the floor, and the chances of the scientist collaborating with someone there fall to 1.9%. And if we were to go up one floor of the building the odds of collaboration drop to 1%. In other words, the odds of a scientist collaborating with someone on a different floor were about as high as collaborating with someone 40 miles away.

Physical proximity is often dictated by work departments - we sit near the people from our own department. And we're obviously much more prone to collaborate with the individuals, because they're part of the same business unit.

But when the researchers controlled for departmental similarity, proximity remained a substantial force in terms of attraction. 

Scientists were twice as likely to collaborate with a departmental colleague on the same floor as with a departmental colleague on a different floor. Moreover, employees who worked in different departments but sat close to each other were six times more likely to form collaborative partnerships than they were with counterparts in different departments who worked on different floors.

One would expect scientist to make decisions on whom to collaborate with based on research ability or knowledge, not whether someone is sitting in the adjacent office. Their academic reputations,their careers, their very livelihoods depends on their choice of collaboration partners. But the exponential attraction rule is so powerful that it overrides other factors.

One explanation for the power and ubiquity of the proximity rule is something psychologists call spontaneous communication - the unplanned, ordinary conversations and exchanges that occur when people interact serendipitously because they are in the same place at the same time. Over time, these seemingly casual interactions with people can have long term consequences.

We're increasingly told to maximize efficiency: write an email instead of picking up the phone, attend a video conference instead of travelling across the country. Virtualising our relationships is more efficient, more focused - we get right to the core of business and don't waste time on extraneous content.

But actually there's tremendous power in the casual conversations and interactions. They create social glue that enables the formation of deeper connections and relationships between people. 

Creating Space - Effectively and Efficiently 
Through these examples of proximity, spontaneous communication and unforced communal interaction   we get an idea of why Google, Apple, Facebook et al take this so seriously.

Even in Apple's retail stores there could be lessons that educators might be able to adapt for the classroom and differentiated learning - Our children need schools of 

Another organisation who demonstrate a good understanding of creating space differently is the retailer Zara.
Instead of isolating design, production, and marketing staff in separate silos, Zara’s offices, shops and other facitilites are laid out to encourage the fast, free flow of information, with designers working in the midst of production and marketing so that feedback on new styles, production glitches, quality problems and customer behaviour becomes virtually immediate.

This also sends a message to Zara’s staff that no one is “cooler” than anyone else, or to put it another way, that everybody in the company is as cool as the design team...and weekly telephone communication on how customers are reacting to different offerings. 

The result is that whereas most competitors are hard-pressed to vary 20% of the order mix in any one selling season in response to customer behaviour and other factors, Zara can adjust 40-50% of the order mix without strain.

Making Space for Values...A Good IDEO?
When the early buzz about Tribal Leadership began to form, many company leaders asked us to help them figure out why they couldn't get traction on teamwork. One visit to their company showed at least part of the problem: their physical space didn't match the values of the team and company they wanted to be... These companies preached "open door policies" and "we" not "me," yet their physical design sent a different message. We believe that the future of commercial architecture must hold hands with the future of collaborate cultures, producing workplaces like that at IDEO - where cultures, values and physical space are consistent. Tribal Leadership

Sir Ken Robinson and others highlight that the classroom was designed for the industrial age, like so many other areas of education... how could we, should we and would we re-think about making space for new ideas like these and others?

If you liked this post you may like some of the following books "I'm Feeling Lucky" by Doug Edwards; "The Steve Jobs Way" by Jay Elliot; "The Social Entrepreneur"  by Andrew Mawson; "Flip" by Peter Sheahan, Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright


  1. Really interesting post, lots of things to consider. However as usual often it boils down to cost that prevents these resources etc...being provided to create a positive T & L environment. Also I do think that the vision of the FE colleges principles can sway what the environment is like.

    Right now though I think I would like to work for Google!

  2. Great post and agree with Carolyn, that it is cost that is the killer factor for providing positive T and L environments. Real Shame.
    At my last college @bpc I launched the STEM centre which had an 'ideas' room on the top floor. 3D projector, multi-coloured mood lighting, iPads etc. Fabulous for encouraging creative thinking. More pics here Very proud of that. It really does encourage creativity in STEM.