Learning is impacted by many forces such as the learner’s disposition to the process, the quality of their teacher’s pedagogy, their emotional state and nature of the curriculum. Amongst this long list of factors is naturally the environment in which that learning occurs and the relationship between the environment and the learner. Our understanding of this relationship has grown and fortunately today’s educators are more willing to experiment with the way spaces are organised to promote learning. The new buzzword to describe learning spaces is ‘flexible’, but what does this mean and how might we ensure that our attractive new spaces do more than look pretty.
You do not have to go far back in time to find images of classrooms that fit the look and feel experienced by the first students to experience formalised school education. Sadly you most likely can find classrooms that fit this image in your local school, today. A blackboard or Interactive Whiteboard at the front of the room, a teachers desk beside it, rows of neatly aligned desks and walls conspicuously devoid of colour or covered in carefully selected pieces of student work with a motivational poster going yellow in one corner. Ken Robinson has entertained many audiences with stories of this sort of classroom, stories that are entertaining to so many because they fit perfectly with their experience of school.
But not all classrooms are like this, some present learners with a mix of spaces suitable to a variety of learning modes or meet these varying needs through the use of spaces that are readily adapted throughout the day. Flexible learning spaces that may be tailored to the needs of the learners are said to be the future of learning. The classroom of the future as seen in the emerging spaces of today’s flexible classrooms will be bright airy spaces, full of colour and comfortable furnishings that can be arranged in many ways to create spaces of varying shapes and sizes. The classroom is becoming increasingly homely with spaces to lounge, spaces to sit formally at desks, spaces for collaboration and spaces for quiet reflection. Like so many ideas these flexible spaces first appeared in the offices of the young and hip start up companies of Silicon Valley. Google in addition to leading the world into the era of ‘search’ and all things online also led the way with the adoption of workspaces that smashed the stereotype cubicle spaces of their old economy competitors. Google took the colours of its well-known logo, combined them with playful design sensibilities and open spaces that were readily adapted to differing needs and gave the world a new design aesthetic.
Since then there has been a good deal of experimentation with learning spaces and we are beginning to understand how to best utilise this new way of thinking. One of the first significant moves forward was the emergence of a metalanguage for the types of spaces we are likely to have. The origins of this language are a little murky but a good starting point is probably the work of architects Prakash Nair, Randall Fielding and Dr. Jeffrey Lackney of Design Share. Their work embodies so much of what has been adopted in a modern design language for schools and introduced three key spaces. Using metaphors from ancient civilisations spaces are seen as Campfires, Watering Holes or Cave Spaces; each serving a different purpose but acting together to meet the needs of a group of learners throughout a day. Campfires are spaces that allow communication on a large scale and fit the model of the lecture into a friendlier space that encourages more back and forth interaction. The Campfire space is best supported by spaces for collaboration on a smaller scale with nearby breakout spaces or flexibility in furnishings that offer this function. Watering Holes are spaces for small group collaboration and should include spaces that facilitate spontaneous interactions and socialisation. By nature they are likely to be loud but can be adapted to the specific needs of the group. Cave Spaces are for individuals and pairs who need access to a quiet space for reflection and meditative thinking. These spaces offer a foundation along with ideas such as tiered seating and task specific areas (wet areas, lab spaces, performance spaces) but with an agenda to allow spaces to be adapted and remixed to suit the needs of the learner schools should create spaces to suit their specific needs.
Beyond the physical nature of the spaces there are important considerations for how they are to be used. A quick search online will reveal countless images of attractive educational spaces but such images present a potential risk to school planners. The design of any learning space must be guided by sound principles of learning and the spaces need to be matched to the pedagogy of those who will use them. The most amazing space will fail to enhance learning if it does not suit the needs of its users. There is a danger in hoping that new learning spaces will transform tired pedagogy; a belief that is not reflected by experience. In Sydney, Northern Beaches Christian School has had great success with its use of flexible learning spaces and has adopted the language of Nair, Fielding and Lackeny. Visitors to the school are told how these spaces evolved overtime to suit shifts in the ways their teachers taught and learners learned. The pedagogy of the school evolved overtime and this shift demanded new spaces to suit. A large financial investment without careful planning and preparation for how the new spaces will be embedded into the school’s learning platform is likely to result in spaces that are under utilised.
With the adoption of new learning spaces come new opportunities for student learning. With choice should come an understanding of the choices that are made. Research has shown that the nature of the space can have an effect on the way we learn at a neurological level. Spaces full of noise and movement suit learning that is goal oriented in which the learner has a clear direction and understands how to get there. The brain responds to this environment in specific ways and the architecture of the brain in this environment is well suited to this mode of learning. This is why we are able to get certain tasks done effectively when listening to loud music but it also explains why this environment is not well suited to tasks requiring more open ended, reflective and creative thinking. In the loud environment the brains architecture is like a metaphorical mountain range with steep valleys according to Claxton and Lucas writing in ‘New Kinds of Smart’, sticking to the valleys allows us to traverse the pathways to completing a task quickly and with focus. At other times in a calm environment the brain is in what they call ‘Meadow Mode’ where a metaphor of a brain with flatter open spaces illustrates a more meditative style with open pathways for connecting ideas and big picture thinking. Understanding that the spaces we are learning in can affect the brains mode of operating is essential. What we want is for our students to have a range of spaces to choose from and the ability to explain why they are choosing one space over another. Spatial metacognition should become a skill for learners as they are empowered to select and even organise spaces to suit their learning.
Lastly the way that we organise our spaces is only part of the discussion of how the learning environment shapes the learning that occurs within it. How we decorate these spaces has a significant impact too. Traditionally learning spaces, particularly in Primary schools are adorned with lovingly completed works of the students interspersed with carefully selected motivational phrases or images. These displays say a lot about what schools value; that is finished and near perfect pieces of work. This model is being challenged and schools are finding success in using their wall spaces as a combination of planning and ideational space that shows works in progress alongside tips and strategies that can be applied to learning; ideas generated by the students as they reflect on their learning. The wall spaces become an extension of the student’s exercise books and digital devices onto which the students arrange ideas as they evolve to be shared and commented on. If a school values a Growth Mindset this use of displays spaces goes a long way to reinforcing the belief that learning is messy and requires hard work with mistakes and revisions on the way.
Undoubtedly the new learning spaces bring a fresh level of excitement to schools and students quickly fall in love with the options and the playfulness they offer. The challenge for schools is to avoid the lure of shiny new toys and ensure that the adoption of flexible spaces is part of a bigger shift in thinking that includes effective pedagogies and supports for teachers who will be using the new spaces.
by Nigel Coutts
Nair, P. (2014) Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning. Harvard Education Press
The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning by OWP/P Architects, VS Furtniture, and Bruce Mau Design
Lucas, B., & Claxton, G. (2010). New kinds of smart. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.