TLI Explores Creating Healthy Learning Spaces

The goal of much of Robert Dillon’s work is to expand the definition of what a “healthy building” means. Most school buildings are conceptually designed for learning, but not for health, he said. His hopes are to broaden how buildings are constructed and to transition to a model that focuses on the health and wellness of students, staff members and any residents who enter.

“People want children to be in healthy buildings, but we need to expand its definition,” said Dr. Dillon, a longtime educator and thought leader who has served as teacher, principal and director of innovation. “The health of students and educators – both physical and emotional – are impacted by where they learn and teach. There’s an academic prowess to having a healthy building.”

On Feb. 26, Dr. Dillon was the engaging keynote speaker at the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center’s Technology Leadership Institute Active-Con 2021. His presentation, “Designing Learning Spaces for Health and Wellness,” discussed emerging trends, why issues of space and wellness are currently magnified, and what it means to be in a healthy building.

“This keynote feels like it’s coming from a friend rather than a professional resource,” said Leslie Accardo, the LHRIC’s Model Schools coordinator, about Dr. Dillon. “He’s the patron saint of active learning in our region.”

Educating during a pandemic has been challenging on many levels. From a logistical standpoint, it has made it apparent that both students and staff members benefit from being in an environment that optimizes academic achievement and prioritizes effectiveness for teaching and learning.

“We’ve learned so much during this pandemic about what we can and can’t do in regard to physical spaces,” Dr. Dillon said. His research illustrated that when choice and agency were increased, it resulted in greater joy and engagement for students, which ultimately set them up for success.

Several school districts have seen the value of creating healthy buildings. A popular trend is creating wellness centers on campuses, which Dr. Dillon remarked is more beneficial than having a “calm down room” or “quarantine room.” Wellness centers “help us think long-term about what it means to be in a healthy building,” he said.

Another commonly implemented trend is focusing on outdoor learning. While it may look different across the nation, “its benefits are vast – outdoor learning means that we can get kids outside, which holds many health benefits,” said Dr. Dillon, stressing the importance of acquiring Vitamin D from sunshine and connecting with the real world.

Other trends include performing a building analysis to ensure that all available space is being used optimally; creating a hybrid campus, especially for secondary school students, which allows for virtual learning; the rise of e-sports; and the implementation of “learning coaches,” rather than teachers, as a way to deal with faculty shortages.

Dr. Dillon applauded these healthy learning space trends but cautioned districts against spending money on them if they “aren’t in sync with your instructional practices,” he said. “It’s important that they all fit together.” Focusing on the reasoning behind implementing any change will ensure the space’s betterment.

“My hope is that every building reduces the stress of teachers and learners,” Dr. Dillon said. “My hope is that when we design a space, we get to a point where they are happy, energized, comfortable, thoughtful and relaxed.”

Dr. Dillon continued to say that if educators use those markers as their “north star,” it will lead their district to success. In addition, success can be measured by students and teachers feeling a sense of belonging in their schools, and the sustainability for future generations to continue enjoying the space.

“You don’t have to go from A to Z tomorrow, but we want to continually move forward with this,” he said.

“You make something that seems so huge and transcendent seem doable,” Ms. Accardo said.

The TLI Virtual Keynote Series continues on April 30 with Michael Horn, who will discuss the future of education.

The virtual Tech Expo will take place on May 21 with a keynote by media entrepreneur/journalist/author/podcaster Manoush Zomorodi. Register here. Educators interested in presenting at the Tech Expo can submit an application here.