Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Losing Control, Gaining Community to Better Student Learning

By Contributing Blogger — November 28, 2018 4 min read
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By Sajan George, the founder and CEO for Matchbook Learning

Turning around a school involves turning around each classroom within the school. The success of creating a new culture rises or falls on the culture and climate in each classroom that the teacher sets, maintains, and builds throughout the year.

The steps to effectively managing a classroom to establish a culture for learning take time, process, expectation, and formation. Countless professional-development trainings are available to help teachers improve their classroom management. I am not interested in rehashing those axioms. I would like to zoom in to the one individual’s behavior you can control—your own, and then zoom out to the broader school and classroom environment.

Zooming In: Losing Control

A controlled classroom where a teacher has a tight rein on behavior can feel like a well-managed classroom, but that is not the same as a classroom conducive to high and deep levels of learning. While a lack of any control is disruptive to the learning process, too many controls can dampen creativity, self-discovery, and deep learning.

It is a balancing act to hand meaningful levels of autonomy to learners while preventing the classroom from devolving into chaos. One strategy to become more comfortable with yielding more control to students to learn is to identify your own triggers.

Triggers are those circumstances that easily and often provoke us without our consent or control into an emotional response. For some adults, a messy workspace can make them irritable. An overcast or cloudy day can lower their feelings of contentment. Deadlines, obnoxious people, nonsignaling highway lane changers ... we each have our own triggers. We cannot eliminate our triggers. What we can do is identify what they are and when they occur and then work to avoid them or mitigate their impact.

Allowing the class to navigate their learning pathways will require teachers to understand what their triggers are so they are not tripped, and when teachers are triggered, their response can be mitigated.

Zooming Out: Gaining Community

If we are willing to yield some control in how our school spaces outside of classrooms are designed, could the benefit of those designs yield better community inside classrooms? This is clearly the value proposition of WeWork—a $20 billion company providing flexible office workspace in 72 cities worldwide, known as the most hyped startup in the world: humanizing work by focusing on the work environment. You can work anywhere, but if you work inside their office space, you will collaborate more, which will lead to higher levels of enjoyment, which will lead to higher levels of creativity and productivity. Form precedes function.

If WeWork’s thoughtful design of space can foster higher community and productivity in areas as disparate as freelance entrepreneurship, large-scale computer-hardware manufacturing, retail, and technology, could it also work for schools?

We’re working with architects, furniture manufacturers, computer-lab designers to reconfigure some high-traffic spaces within Matchbook Learning @ Wendell Phillips School 63, our school in Indianapolis:


  • The cafeteria provides a free breakfast and lunch to every one of our students who sit at round tables to foster conversation. How might we design soundproofing panels to allow better listening and inspirational vertical panels to capture quotes, messages, and leaders?

  • The teacher’s lounge is an area of respite from the day-to-day demands. Teachers grab their lunch there. Is there a way this could be designed to be more cafélike?

  • The school library is a wide-open space that contains books but not much else that stimulates learning or collaboration. Could this space be redesigned to foster better collaboration?

This inner-city charter school has little in the way of extra resources. However, Indianapolis has some amazing architects, furniture makers, space planners, and other experts who have not really applied their skill sets and passion for impacting their community inside a school. My guess is that every city has people with such skills sets that would similarly donate their time and expertise if thoughtfully invited into a collaborative discussion and opportunity.

What if our triggers for negative emotional responses could be completely negated by designing spaces with triggers for positive emotional responses? I am not talking about ping pong tables and espresso machines. I am talking about spaces that can be designed for flow, energy, and even rest. Good teachers know how to do this with their classrooms. The age of their building or limited resources does not impede this.

If our nonclassroom spaces started to reflect more WeWork-like intentionality, we could see the most-hyped startups in the world be newly designed or redesigned schools, with a collective impact far exceeding $20 billion.

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