Parent, Teacher, Author
In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull tells the story of a conference table. While trying to promote an environment at Pixar where everybody pitched in and worked to solve problems, they inadvertently set a different tone. The key issues seemed to be that meetings were being held in a traditional conference room, with a table that had the “decision makers” at the center, and even a row of chairs around the outside for those who couldn’t fit at the table. Catmull notes that they realized that the physical space and its set up was getting in the way of the collaborative, creative problem-solving that they had hoped to achieve.
I wonder how many times our physical work environment gets in the way of creativity in higher education? From the way our classroom is arranged to our offices to our conference rooms, we may often find ourselves in a space that is set up to promote a culture of hierarchy, where the person in charge says what goes and the rest do his or her bidding. We may strive to fit our collaboration and creativity into those spaces, but it’s often a challenge, just like Pixar found at that traditional conference table, because the space is saying that it values something different.
I remember one particular classroom that got in the way of creativity for my students and me. We were crammed into a classroom with 36-40 old school desks, barely able to move through the aisles. My classes are active learning environments, where we move around a lot, do group work, and share our work. Imagine my frustration when I tried active learning activities in this space! I ended up moving chairs into the hallway so that my students could better exchange thoughts and ideas. After this experience, I began to think about the spaces that I taught in, and how they might best help my students and me in our collaborative work.
As the executive director of a Center for teaching and learning, I’ve had the chance to design several learning and collaboration spaces. About four years ago we redesigned our classroom in the Center, moving from a traditional “sage on the stage” space to one that facilitates movement and group work. We did this by finding tables and chairs that are easy to move and configure into different models. We also put writable glass boards on every wall, allowing a place for writing, brainstorming, sharing of ideas, and so forth. Lastly, three large computer monitors and an Apple TV set up provide a way for both the teacher and students to share learning products, websites, articles, and other information for discussion.
Learning spaces aren’t just classrooms, though. They can also be spaces specifically designed for collaboration. In our Center, we had a conference room that reminded me a lot of the conference room that Catmull describes in his book. The room was dominated by a giant table and surrounded by bulky chairs. Much as the one at Pixar, the set-up of this room actually encouraged hierarchy and discouraged collaboration and creativity, just by its physical arrangement. Folks on one end of the room couldn’t really hear folks on the other end, and those in the middle got the prime seats for discussion while anyone else was likely to feel outside of the real conversation. Unlike the other rooms in our Center, which are almost always reserved by various groups for meetings, this room proved to be empty most of the time. Obviously, it wasn’t inviting for most groups of faculty and staff in our university!
Collaboration is a key component of our push for using creativity in higher education, and I had noticed that there weren’t many collaboration spaces set aside for faculty use. So, I started thinking, what if we could create a space that provided faculty members with a place to come together and work on interdisciplinary projects; a space designed specifically to encourage collaboration and creativity? I spent a year working with one of our key learning space designers, our director of faculty development, and our faculty development committee. We came up with a space that provides faculty with a designated place to work in a flexible, thoughtfully designed environment that supports collaboration.
Using movable furniture with a casual feel, our goal was to harken back to the golden age of the coffee house, providing faculty with the chance to dream, connect ideas, share thoughts, and build upon one another’s discoveries. Our Collaboration Cafe has become a powerful place of creativity on our campus, with snacks and drinks, comfortable seating, and a warm welcome for faculty to join in the process of discovery together.
 Catmull, E. & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York: Random House. Pg. 3-5.