Hillbrook School, an independent, coeducational JK-8 day school in the heart of Silicon Valley, is leaping straight into the fray of mobile learning.

What do you put in your classroom to change behavior?

Posted on October 22, 2013 by Don Orth under General
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We are serious about space at Hillbrook.

Not the kind that has planets and stars, but the space in which students learn. Three years of the Hillbrook Idea Lab (iLab) has taught us a lot about the aspects of space that build confidence and engagement, and ultimately inspire students to learn. (See companion videos edited by Tim Springer here: https://www.hillbrook.org/ilab)

We’ve taken to heart the learning environment as a Third Teacher—light, space, color, decorations, furniture and available tools impact our experience, and ultimately our learning. The iLab has taught us that movement, choice, and the right tools can empower students to move, explore, learn and engage more deeply in their work. This year, we redesigned three more middle school classrooms to incorporate iLab components and concepts that we found had the greatest impact on the learning of students. The following is the short list:

  1. Whiteboard walls

  2. Rolling whiteboards

  3. Rolling, folding, whiteboard tables

  4. The concept of a room reset

  5. The concept of a classroom without a front

Search for “classroom” in Google images. Results confirm what you probably see in your mind when you think “classroom;” desks or tables lined up in rows, blackboard or whiteboard at the front of a room, and maybe students holding devices of some sort. And from there, it’s easy to imagine a teacher in front guiding and instructing a classroom of children, who dutifully hang on the his or her every word. It’s mostly what our own education looked like—elementary, middle, high school, college—and it hasn’t changed much in too many places around the world.

Simultaneously, it’s hard to ignore what we hear about and see in our local, highly innovative Silicon Valley culture. Telecommuting, open workspaces, giant whiteboards, design thinking, the necessity of collaboration, technology, etc. I’m not suggesting that we need to prepare our students for a start-up culture, but we are learning that the traditional classroom is not always ideal for building the competencies our children need and the world they live in now.

They need to learn how to problem solve and think critically. They need to know how to integrate technology seamlessly when it makes sense and augments their work. They need to learn how to collaborate in a synergistic way with their peers and not in the “I’ll do my part and you do yours then we’ll stick ‘em together” kind of assembly line model. The expectations we have for our children and the complexities of their world require rethinking education. And surprisingly, the learning space is a remarkable vehicle for getting there.

Over the past three years, we’ve collected information about how students and teachers use the Hillbrook iLab (formerly known as the computer lab). We compared engagement in traditional spaces and compared it to the iLab. We observed how students moved and made decisions about where and how they worked when given the freedom to choose. We asked teachers and students how they felt working in the iLab, what was possible in that space compared to other spaces. We asked teachers to do the same activities in their classroom and the iLab, and to compare the the experience in both spaces. We asked student about how they viewed the iLab as compared to other classrooms, and about the work they got done. The results are intriguing, and indicate that re-examining and potentially redesigning learning spaces is essential work for all schools. The following are a few highlights.

The iLab helped students learn about how they learned best and how, by manipulating their environment, they could get different kinds of work done. Because the iLab had a “room reset” at the end of each class, incoming students had to design their learning space when they came in. Which meant that they had to know what kind of work they were doing. Which means they were thinking about the work. Which means they were a stepping into owning the work before starting the work itself. We saw students more engaged, more creative, more energetic, and developing more ideas in the iLab space as compared to other traditional spaces.

The iLab had a certain feeling to it that teacher and student and even visitors could sense. Students wanted to be in the iLab and it was the favorite space of many.

Students were empowered in the iLab. The whiteboard walls and rolling boards, the permission to arrange the environment, and the freedom to move afforded more opportunities for student leadership, student-directed learning, and differentiation. Work in the iLab feels important and like real life, partially because students have more control over their choices. That said, teachers did not teach the same way in the iLab, and upon reflection, talked about a shift towards being a partner or consultant rather than leader or supervisor.

Because Hillbrook took a deep dive into asking and researching agile learning spaces in practice, many schools use our story to inform their own decisions about their classrooms. There is a significant movement to redesign learning spaces and Hillbrook, it’s teachers and students, are helping shape the future spaces for students in many other schools.

Currently, we’re working with the National Teacher’s Academy, an elementary school in Chicago, helping them explore their own agile classroom space, and opening a dialog between our students. We’re also working with the Palo Alto Union school district to investigate how agile learning spaces can be applied to adult learning. We’ve also started to build partnerships with San Jose State College of Ed, Stanford University, and other schools and universities to broaden our inquiry. In the fall of 2014, we hope to hold a Learning Spaces summit that gathers leadership around the world to discuss the future of the classroom.

The impact of the learning environment cannot be underestimated. Our intense inquiry to the ways in which agile learning spaces impact learning are not only benefitting our own students but are influencing the world.

At Hillbrook this year, we have extended the iLab classroom format to middle school English, history and math classrooms. Teachers and students continue to explore how these agile classrooms help students engage and learn more deeply. We are fortunate to have a community of teachers and learning who ask questions, dive deep, and lead the way to shaping the future of education for Hillbrook and beyond.

5 Steps Towards an Intentional Learning Space

Posted on August 14, 2013 by Don Orth under General
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So it’s the beginning of school and if you’re worth your salt (and you have access), you’ve probably already been in your classroom setting it up. What kind of inspirational posters are you pinning on the walls? How much scotch tape and staples and how many thumbtacks do you need? What resources do you want your students to absorb as they look around during a classroom discussion? What kind of atmosphere do you want to create? How do you want your students to feel when they walk into your room? If you share a room, can you do anything to make those rooms feel like the kind of spaces that inspire students? What kind of colors and what light? What mysterious corners can you create? What places invite the student in?

And there’s not one perfect learning space for every single learner. If your school requires teachers share classrooms, there are other limitations in play.

Whatever your situation, the more conscious you are of the impact your learning environment can have, the more you can impact the engagement, learning and even relationships of and with your students.

As you design your spaces, there are many factors you might think about. Here are a few of the biggies. (Listen to students and teachers talking about their experience with new kinds of learning spaces.)

1) Where’s your desk? When students walk into the room, is your desk a barricade between you and them? A teacher’s desk can represent power and control, and its position also plays a role. If you must have a desk (and there is a trend of teachers tossing their desks out completely), think about whether it divides you and your students. Can you push it against a wall so that you are more accessible, so that it becomes more of an outer boundary than an inner barricade? The existence, type, and position of your desk can shape the relationship you have with your students.


2) Where’s the front? If your classroom has a front or center (and most classrooms do) what is there and what message does it send? Is there a big white board with your words all over it–instructions for behavior, for work, etc.? Is there another barrier between you and your students or a lot of “stuff” that your students can’t touch? When students walk in, are the entering from the back the side or the front? What does it feel like to enter in each of those situations? How do students arrange themselves relative to the “front?” What if you took away the front–what would happen?


3) What’s on your walls? How you decorate your walls sends a message to your students about who owns the space. Is the space all yours? Are you willing to share ownership? Might you even consider passing ownership to them? After a week or so, the stuff on over-decorated walls becomes wallpaper. And research actually shows that too much clutter reduces students’ ability to focus and pay attention. I’ve talked to some teachers who start with nothing on the walls and the students decorate them as the year goes on. Other teachers have minimal decorations, but thoughtful, relevant and ever-changing to spark interest and curiosity.


4) Does your room change? How much do you change and rearrange your room through the year, the week, the day? And who has the authority to switch it around? You’d be amazed how much student choice has an impact on willingness to learn. Teachers at Hillbrook have noticed that shifting the classroom around from class to class often sparks interest and attention that a traditional, predictable classroom does not. Teachers and students enjoy being able to shift the classroom around in the middle of a lesson to serve their needs for the work at hand. Think about how much your environment dictates your activities. And do you ever allow the work to command the environment?


5) What’s it like for your students? Are students allowed to move around (studies show that students benefit from movement) or must they stay still? What are students allowed to do and not allowed to do in your classroom? Is your management style and space designed to keep students quiet and in their place or does it give permission and ownership to the students? What choices do students have about where and how they work? Do you want your students to feel free, creative and enabled or structured, restricted and rule-bound, or somewhere else on the spectrum? What do you want learning to look like in your classroom? Try to walk in your students’ shoes–what does it feel like for them?

classroom 2

Environments can impact behavior. The THINGS in our spaces can actually cause engagement, can empower, and can inspire. Environment is no light thing.

Learning can look like THIS

Posted on April 17, 2013 by Don Orth under General
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Last week, a small team of teachers and I traveled to Atlanta to participate in Ed Tech Teachers’ iPad Summit (their second national conference on iPads–the first was in Boston, Fall 2012). It’s one of the best tech conferences I’ve been to because 1) it has a clear focus–iPads in education, 2) attendees come with specific questions and actively seek answers and 3) its goal is “transforming education.” The questions keynote speakers and many presenters revisited were: “What does transformative education look like? Why is important? What are we trying to do? How do we meet our students in their world and leverage THAT?” Education, as John Dewey wrote in “My Pedagogical Creed” must be relevant and important now, not simply a preparation for the future. And, I think we all understand, that the future is increasingly unpredictable. It would be irresponsible to think we could possibly set our children up with the exact skills they will need for their future lives. How can we prepare students for a future when we have no idea what it (or any “jobs” in the future) will look like?  That said, we must ask the question: how can school best serve our students?  What is important?


Technology plays an important role in this, but not in the typical ways one may think. One concept that came up during the summit was this idea of the iPad as a trojan mouse. Co-founder of Ed Tech Teacher Justin Reich writes:

“Those of us interested in meaningful change in teaching and learning need to make sure that the shiny exterior of the Trojan Mouse is stuffed inside with serious questions about practice, student relationships, assessment, a shared language about pedagogy, and a shared vision for our students.”  Read more.

The iPad has allowed us to look into the classroom differently, with different focus. It reveals both brilliant and obsolete pedagogy, transformative and mind-numbing curricula, inspiring and discouraging projects and work. An example–try to redefine with an iPad (Rubin Puentadura’s SAMR model) a curriculum that follows to the T a workbook of worksheets. You could convert pages into PDFs, allow students to drop in pictures with the coolest annotation apps, and have them type neatly, with a rainbow of colors in the boxes–but you still have the same old mind-numbing march through a workbook. Sometimes the best thing to do is to start over. It’s not enough to adopt new technology. Teachers need to continue what they do well–adopt new tools, evolve their curriculum, embrace new techniques, and base their practice on sound pedagogy.

No less significant to the student experience is the physical classroom.

Put a classroom of students and a teacher in a room with iPads. They have access to the near-infinity of resources available on the web and a wide range of tools for content creation and collaboration; not to mention the “extreme” mobility of such a little, power-packed device. Ask everyone to get to work and notice how they move around the classroom trying to get together around the friction, gravity, and sheer bulk of traditional classroom space and furniture. Watch how students migrate to the halls and out of doors to do their work together and alone. It’s no coincidence that the hallway has become a new classroom space. I’ve seen hundreds of photos of students lined up comfortably in the hallways of their schools or on outdoor stairs, doing their work. The mobility is fabulous–students do work EVERYWHERE, but we also need to consider that this migration to any other place than the classroom is perhaps a failure of the classroom itself. Ask students to create their own space for learning and it looks NOTHING like the classroom. Ask adults where they enjoy doing their most creative and inspired work and–you guessed it–it also looks NOTHING LIKE THE CLASSROOM.

Hillbrook’s Idea Lab (iLab) was inspired by our 1:1 iPad program and the mobility it injected into the classroom. How do we create an environment (maybe we should stop calling it a classroom)—learning space (it can be physical virtual or both) that leverages mobility and inspires students? In the same way that our teaching and curricula need to consider mobile technology and learning, so do our spaces.

At the conference, I talked to many educators who asked me variations of these questions: “I’m taking our computer lab offline” or “We have a new space we’d like to redesign…” then: “What kind of furniture should we put in there?” or “What should it look like?” These are reasonable questions at some point, BUT they are not the first questions. Perhaps they are not even the right questions. In the same way, when a school has the opportunity as well as the resources to buy new technology, the first question should not be: “What kind of tech should we get?” The questions need to be: “What are you trying to do? What do you want students to learn? What do you want teaching and learning to look like? What is important?”

One small detail should be part of this equation as well: “What do students need to learn?” (See 21 century skills outlined in The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators by Wagner.)

It’s also not a small thing to ask your VIPs–the students–how they learn. When you ask, be prepared for a wide range of answers. Are you ready to deal with that or do you throw up your hands and create a space with the lowest common denominator (be it cost, furniture, etc.)? Everyone learns differently–even adults. Should the “classroom” look the same for everyone? Do students really know what’s best for them? But who does know what’s best for them? Guidance is important; exposure and expansion of possibilities is important–but most people have difficulty imagining something beyond what they’ve experienced. Children are better with imagination, given the license to exercise it–but if we leave it to adults alone, it may be the same old same old.

The Hillbrook iLab allows students to build their space for learning, every single time. It allows different students to create different learning environments in the same space. Still some students need the outdoors and hallways, their own rooms or a fixed desk, but more students are taking ownership of the iLab and loving it.

There are many ways to talk about the iLab and it’s role in teaching and learning, but I see it like this: If you ask a student to create their own learning space for a particular work, they begin to engage before the work even starts, building the space in a way that will help them do that work. They commit to the work before they are even doing the work. And by enabling them to take ownership and interact with the space – they continue to test, take risks and explore as they do their work. They own the space and so the work. The sense of student-ownership is significant.

The iLab is a student-owned space. It it mostly not prearranged by teachers. Students enter the iLab and “feel differently” than they do in other classrooms. The relationship between teacher and student also changes when a room does not “belong” to any one adult or group.  It becomes more collaborative, with the teacher acting as facilitator, rather than recreating the sage on the stage format they may use more often in their traditional classrooms.

So when you have the opportunity to redesign a space, ask yourself about the work you’d like students to do, about the work they might do, about the work (and don’t limit your imagination here) that might be possible. Then ask your students the same thing. Ask about the kind of teaching and learning you’d like to see, and the relationships between students, teachers, and the work at hand. Be ready to completely redesign the way teaching happens, the format you give students to work, and most importantly, the trust you have in your students to make good decisions about how they learn.

You might have to re-teach students how to take ownership of their learning–traditional education often discourages entrepreneurialism, but after a quick reintroduction to how to own and use space, you’ll find that it comes naturally to students and they will rise to that responsibility. Give them a space that will allow for all the creativity and imaginative power that’s always bubbling right below the surface. And then, step back, and let them learn.


What does creativity have to do with problem solving?

Posted on September 8, 2012 by Christa Flores under General
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I find that I am most creative when tackling a problem. When I have to use my whole brain, and my objective is clear, I am a pretty good problem solver actually. Luckily I learned this about myself the first year of my educational career while an assistant teacher at a Jewish Montessori preschool in San Diego. Then again, on-the-spot training on how to teach 3-4 year-olds important skills such as how to use a computer, how not to bite, and the Hebrew names for snack items would, no doubt, be a crash course on multi-tasking and problem solving for anyone.

Looking back, it was a little late in life to have gained creative confidence. Put another way, why don’t we gain or preserve that confidence throughout our school years? Now that I teach 5th and 6th grade science, that question is turned back on me as a teacher. How can I preserve and or foster creative confidence in my own students?
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Welcome to the Hillbrook iLab

Posted on August 29, 2012 by Tim Springer under General
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Hello Hillbrook Friends and Welcome to the Hillbrook iLab.

This is the start of a conversation about learning and space. It centers around the iLab – Hillbrook School’s innovative, flexible, agile learning space.


Best wishes today on the start of a new school year.  It’s a crazy, busy and exciting time.

It’s been a busy Summer  - sprucing up the space, installing the furniture, developing rubrics for collecting observational data, working to build additional data collection tools; developing student feedback and informed consent forms; building a new iLab website.  Now that hard work pays off and phase two of the iLab project begins.

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