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September 19, 2013

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Interview | Tim Springer: A New Mobile Approach to the Learning Space

Interview | Tim Springer: A New Mobile Approach to the Learning Space

Change your space, change your world.” That’s Tim Springer’s basic philosophy, and it’s one that he’s been a champion of for more than 30 years now. Tim is the president and CEO of Chicago-based Human Environmental Research Organization, Inc. (HERO). A researcher, educator, author, entrepreneur, and consultant, he is a recognized expert in measuring performance,ergonomics, behavior, and the environment. For more than 3 decades, Tim has helped a wide variety of client organizations make their environments better places to be. For example, Tim was brought in by Bretford Manufacturing, Inc., a manufacturer of technology-enabled furniture, and Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, Calif., to design and conduct a research project that investigated the impact of the physical environment on learning.

With a focus on bringing meaningful innovation into education, Hillbrook, Bretford, and HERO partnered in creating a custom learning space called the Idea Laboratory, or iLab for short. By way of background, Hillbrook School was one of the first schools to initiate a 1:1 iPad program. Don Orth, director of technology at Hillbrook School, is an instructor and presenter who has been working in public and private schools both in the U.S. and Europe for more than a decade as a teacher and administrator and is the coordinator of the Hillbrook iLab project. His purpose, along with Bretford and HERO, was to study how agile learning environments affect engagement, confidence, and performance of students. In acknowledgment of their accomplishments, Hillbrook School was selected as an Apple Distinguished School for the 2012–2013 school year; it has become a model school on many different levels. Don himself was named an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2013.Bretford has more than 6 decades of expertise dedicated to the design and manufacture of sustainable furniture solutions that are made in the U.S. Led by Chris Petrick, CEO of the 65-year-old family owned business, Bretford began this research journey to discover the ?best ways to support technology in the changing learning spaces, one of which included engaging teachers, students, and decision makers to capture the “voice of the classroom.” That’s all to say, they ?are very serious about getting learning right. In this interview, Tim, Don, and Chris discuss what it takes to create a mobile world for an academic setting, the issues and challenges, advice on managing the process, and the purposes behind it all.

Victor: Let’s start with some background and a word on what’s happening at Hillbrook.

Don: Hillbrook School, an independent coeducational K–8 day school in Los Gatos, California, and an Apple Distinguished School, has been exploring the use of mobile devices to replace traditional, tethered, desktop computers. In 2010, they launched a 1:1 iPad program in their middle school. The fundamental change from traditional, stationary keyboard and screen technology to personal, mobile, interactive, touch technology quickly began to raise questions and encourage Hillbrook to examine thinking about the bigger questions surrounding learning.

Victor: Very interesting. So, amidst this backdrop, more things began to happen?

Don: The technology transition offered Hillbrook the impetus and opportunity to rethink not only how learning occurs, but where and with whom learning occurs. We decided to convert the old computing lab into an experimental learning space we call the Idea Lab, or iLab, for short.

Victor: And it appears that you decided a wise move would be to partner with some very competent people?

Tim: Hillbrook partnered with us, HERO, Inc., a research and consulting firm, and Bretford, a manufacturer of technology-enabled furniture for education and business—to create the iLab and measure how it affects learning. Bretford uses evidenced-based design, and the Hillbrook iLab was a perfect space to better understand how furniture and environment impacts learning. This is quite unusual in business, where “research” too often means justifying predetermined outcome with artificial data.

Victor: We’re no longer in factory-model rows of desks and dusty chalkboard days of learning. It’s a new era, with new tools. What does it take to really do this right?

Don: To create a physical learning space that reflects and supports the engaging and interactive virtual space of the iPad required a new approach to thinking about classrooms and learning spaces. The iLab is a purposefully agile space.

Victor: How is it agile? What has been done to ensure this was an effective move for increasing student engagement and, more generally, to truly move learning forward?

Tim: It is equipped with furniture and furnishings from Bretford that not only allow but encourage interaction, manipulation, and movement. Over the course of 2 years, a wide variety of information and observations have been collected: from survey questionnaires to user feedback; from behavioral observations to photos and videos of space use; as well as interviews with students and teachers.

Chris: Bretford supported the space with our mobile flip top tables, student chairs, mobile and interactive whiteboards, and soft seating. This gave everyone room to move, enabling and encouraging iLab users to manipulate their learning space as needed for class, group, or individual work.

Victor: Anything else you’d like to share on how this works, and what effects this can have?

Don: When a class uses the iLab, a teacher will remind students of the work to be done, then ask them to create the best environment for the task at hand. Students manipulate chairs, tables, and whiteboards to build the environment and learning spaces that enhance their creativity, collaboration, and work.

Tim: One small qualifier I would add to the final description of the findings [See the Old School, New School sidebar, below. —Ed.]. Given that several teachers conducted classes in both their traditional classrooms and the iLab, we were able to compare the same activity in different settings. This is the essence of research—to make meaningful comparisons. It leads to the persuasive and powerful message: where we learn is important.

Chris: Through a lot of hard work, expertise, and collaboration, the project shows valid data that supports the effects the educational environment has on behavior and, in turn, how the furniture in these environments helps create a positive change. We believe our research will set the stage for the evolution of the traditional classroom into a more agile, connected place to teach and learn.

Victor: Thank you, gentlemen! Well done on creating such meaningful change not just in one school, but to serve as an example to so many other leaders in other schools about to embark on a similar route.

Contact Victor at



Several teachers at Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, Calif., agreed to conduct different sections of their classes in both their traditional learning spaces and in the iLab. The data suggest the following:

• Learning with personal interactive technology such as the iPad in a highly agile and adaptive space such as the iLab is different. Whether used for informal activities or formal classes, both students and teachers behave differently when the space is easily adapted to the current need.

• The iPad encourages and enables cognitive interaction. Highly agile learning spaces encourage manipulation of the environment. Engaging both mind and body increases energy, movement and mobility, interaction with others and the physical environment, confidence, student engagement, ?and performance.?• Both students and teachers preferred the iLab over traditional learning spaces by a large margin.

• Experience in the iLab is changing how teachers think about and use all learning spaces.


To learn more about this innovative project using mobile technology and agile furnishings, visit or contact Don Orth at Hillbrook ( or Tim Springer of HERO, Inc. ( Learn more about the furnishings used in the space and request a copy of the research summary by visiting Bretford (

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