Yesterday, i spent the day in an innovation centre. It was great, sweeping modern architecture, curved glass aplenty, primary coloured comfy seats, open decking with views of the pastures, good coffee, a gaggle of nerds and more Macs than you could shake Steve Jobs at.
By contrast, my office feels slightly, how can i put it? Second hand. The glass is flat, the blinds sagging, the IT is utilitarian and my desk, no matter what spin i put on it, is only innovating in the realm of clutter.
My main thought in the innovation centre was ‘what do i have to innovate to get a view like this’, whilst my main thought at my desk is ‘what do i have to do to get out of here and pick up my kayak’.
The environment is a tricky thing, consisting of both people and footstools. You can have the most vibrant physical environment, filled with the most tedious people, and all you’ll innovate is exit strategies, but you can have the most interesting people in the most cramped, noisy, uncomfortable environment, and you’ll have a great conversation and learn something. Indeed, one of the most interesting conversations i heard all day took place in the very cramped train on the way home, with four people talking passionately about restorative justice.
But, nevertheless, these may be the exceptions that prove the rules. Clearly both group dynamics and environment are important, but quite why this is the case can be less clear.
Is it just the fact that an ‘innovative’ environment is different from our usual environment? Is the difference the thing that makes it special? Is it comfort? The fact that it’s so comfortable that we relax and engage in ‘better quality’ conversations? Maybe, but then again, much innovation comes from adversity, invention to meet needs, which implies we would be better locking the nerds and geeks into the basement whilst we sit on the decking and drink Pimms.
I like the idea that it’s the difference that matters, that the fact we are in an unusual but ‘soft’ environment makes for relaxation. If every office was like the innovation space, maybe it would be less productive. But what does this mean for learning environments? Learning often takes place in ‘different’ environments, be it training rooms, classrooms, school gyms or the back room of a shop. Does the environment have a significant effect on uptake and engagement? To some extent, it must have some effect, maybe small, but maybe quantifiable.
Even things like desks and computers affect our mood and creativity. I’ve noted it before, but the iPad is, for me, a far more creative tool than the PC laptop. I always personalise things to some extent and the black Dell is most definitely ‘work’, whilst the iPad is more ambiguous. Sometimes at night i find myself turning off the work emails to my iPhone and iPad, because somehow the little red circle at the bottom left showing the emails piling in spoils my enjoyment of the technology.
There can be no doubt that the environment i was in yesterday was creative, vibrant and interesting, energetic and innovative. There must be some lessons that can be taken from this to apply to the more normal learning environments that we create and inhabit. And what about online learning environment? Well, that’s a whole other story…