As the coworking movement is built upon a collaborative foundation aimed at exchanging knowledge and resources, turning classrooms into coworking spaces seems to be a logical step, right? Well, not exactly.
Ryan Burwell, a former high school teacher, and dedicated coworker at the Center for Social Innovation in Toronto has given some serious thought to the topic. While he does believe that the two can go together, it won’t be as simple as setting up a coworking space in a classroom and expecting everything to go smoothly. We spoke with Ryan about some of the ways coworking can benefit education, without disrespecting the traditional classroom setting.
How coworking helps to reimagine education outside of the classroom
A high school teacher for 9 years, Ryan worked in alternative schools, which gave him plenty of room to experiment with different teaching methods. But after the financial crisis in 2008, many institutions that provided a more innovative approach to education were shut down. As governments around the world decided to take the barebones approach by slashing alternative programs, such as arts and music, these cutbacks also affected student’s ability to access resources and in many cases, also affected teacher salary. After Ryan’s school shut down, he found himself moving on to CSI coworking space in Toronto, to work with 21 Toys. He soon fell in love with coworking, and also began to realize how isolated he had been while in the classroom
“I wouldn’t go back to teaching,” explained Ryan, “and not because I didn’t absolutely love it, but what I realized after I became a coworker who was also exploring education outside of the classroom, was that you can get a lot more accomplished when you are a part of a more open network”. Ryan is now using coworking to better the educational experience, not just for students, but also for teachers. 21 Toys creates various tools and games to help teach kids of all ages how to be more open and collaborative. “A lot of my work still has to do with education, and the naturally collaborative environment in CSI really help identify how we can work with people in more isolated communities, like educators“.
Ryan continues to explain the way that we tend to easily identify the skills that you need to be creative dynamic communicators, but at the same time find difficulty putting into practice, and why the core of their work “is to give a tangible experience to these somewhat abstract skills.”
How to implement coworking within an established space
When it comes to implementing the coworking model in more traditional settings like the classroom, Ryan is already two steps ahead, recently running experiments regarding coworking in classrooms, the most recent in collaboration with the Toronto catholic school board. “We set up challenges for the students that would push them to question how they view the classroom, and also to come up with solutions as to how they can help their teachers understand what we define as ‘21st century skills’.”
In the spirit of coworking, the students came together from three different schools to meet and create natural connections by forming teams. They were then asked to propose various solutions to their teachers regarding how they could best implement collaboration and “coworking” in the classroom. “Like coworking, you can’t just force a change and expect results, so we experimented with different models which would then be practiced in between the meetups, which took place every three months or so leaving room for trust to build”, explains Ryan. “This experiment really aimed to tear down the walls, stick people together, and validate the experience have students work together while teachers get the chance to witness their student’s progress, and subsequently grow from this experience”
In addition to his work with 21 Toys, Ryan also works wth the MaRS Discovery District which “prepares students to become tomorrow’s leaders by providing K-12 teachers with the resources, networks, and mindsets to build a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation within their classrooms.” For Ryan his work with MaRS has been bolstered by his work with entrepreneurs, transferring these skills to teachers and ultimately students. “At it’s very center this project aims to push individuals to seek out others who think differently, and showing them ways that they can work together effectively, seeing differences and disagreements outside of a negative light, which is really an important skill for the future of work.”
Coworking as a solution to educating future workers
As startup and tech culture is on the tip of every other potential employer’s tongue, where does traditional education fit in?
“Schools and coworking spaces have different mandates that should be respected, but that doesn’t mean that the collaborative value system can’t be embedded into the day to day classroom experience,” says Ryan.
From his experience coworking, Ryan also understands that implementing a different system of communication certainly wouldn’t work if there was someone from the top coming down to simply tell teachers how to do their jobs. “In the spirit of coworking, we want to show people how they can create space for collaboration while also respecting individual boundaries, it’s just another education process.”
While school might not look like coworking spaces (yet), that doesn’t mean the value system can’t have a real impact on the way we treat the future of education. “It’s very easy to equate coworking space with a physical space, but the movement is actually more about the community and growth through collaboration, which is what makes it work so well,” explains Ryan. He mentions the community managers at CSI, and how important they are to facilitating communication, and overall growth within the space. “
Rather than getting someone to come in from the top to instruct teachers how to do their job, which wouldn’t go over well, we can instead bring coworking to classrooms by sharing our own knowledge and experiences, and ultimately show teachers how they can be also community animators to form better communication with their students.”