Social and environmental injustice, leveraged against increased access to social media, is contributing to young students who suffer from eco-anxiety and depression. To support students on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, early education administrations need to think about how school can be an incubator for change and social justice. And as designers, we assist by identifying unfair learning impediments in education spaces with the Universal Design for Learning framework. Teaching is inherently a political act, and dismantling these barriers in early childhood education will change the course of history by changing how we teach children.
Any teaching approach that provides only a single pathway forward to effective learning is inequitable, by design. Drawing from fields of neurobiology and psychology, educators are increasingly expanding their awareness of individual differences, rather than communicating that varied learning is wrong, less than, or inadequate.
In education space design, this looks like flexible learning spaces, various surfaces for learning content engagement (physical and digital), self-directed learning opportunities, and moments for structured choices. These strategies promote self-regulation, autonomy, and metacognition amongst learners. And they provide ways for learners to move at their own pace and have choice across multiple means of engagement, representation, and process. More inclusive classrooms allow children to comfortably learn together—and learn from each other.
Local (Eco) Culture and Making
Young children learn through engagement, forming fundamental understandings about environments at a young age. In fact, between birth and five years old, children learn at the fastest rate in their entire lifetime. As such, the early education classroom can be a catalyst for empathy, cultural exchange, and environmental stewardship. A recent study of an elementary school garden program showed increased student knowledge of related topics (performance as much as doubled compared to non-participants) and conservation attitudes (including an intention to act on ecological problems). Imagine a kitchen-classroom adjacent to a community garden at an elementary school, supporting a maker’s education model and a space for hands-on creative learning from rainwater collection to the choices of fresh food. The curriculum could integrate the cultural identities of the students and their communities, into the classroom by teaching recipes from the student’s homes and cultural backgrounds.
Perceptions of space can be defined by masculine or feminine cultural norms. These norms can be communicated through color, pattern, material, space partitioning, and design elements. These design choices could shape the experiences of the students and in doing so, shape attitudes about what qualifies as gender non-binary education. As designers, it’s our responsibility to first identify where gender bias in education space design exists and second, to design spaces for everyone. We’re undertaking this research with academic partners to understand the implications of gender norms in education space design and devising an identification system.
This post includes cross-disciplinary research by Teresa Jan, Claudia Martinez, Julia Pascutto, and Michael Ralph, and they’ll continue to expand on these topics in coming weeks.
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