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.
Looking online you easily find a whole range of beautifully furnished learning spaces. Rather than a single, one-size fits all arrangement these spaces create zones designed to meet the particular learning needs of those using the space. 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.
Unfortunately, we are not all blessed with expansive classrooms which can readily accommodate a diversity of learning zones. The challenge becomes one of creatively using the space and furnishings you have to create flexible spaces. A good example of this can be found in one of our smallest classrooms.
Located on the top floor of the historically listed Parkes Building, 3B is a class of happy and confident students led by a teacher Emma, who was prepared to give up a teachers desk to give more space back to her learners. For the students Year Three marks an important milestone in their education as they transition from Prep into Junior School. Through the careful arrangement of desks, book cases, cushions and the addition of a playful tee-pee (a feature of some of our Prep Classrooms), Emma was able to welcome her class into a space that was designed to meet their learning needs while being a delightful and welcoming space. Within a small room Emma has created that highly prized mix of campfire, watering hole and cave space. As students settle into the space Emma plans to hand ownership over to the students and will work with them to create spaces that best suit their needs. In this way Emma is providing her students with opportunities for metacognition as they reflect on what works best for them as learners.
Emma is not alone in using the space she has creatively. Last year we were able to purchase a range of new furnishings. Looking to break the mould and explore alternate models for furnishing learning space they explored what was available and what might suit the limited space available. The result is a mix of comfortable lounges which can be arranged to form partly enclosed booths, round tables with writeable surfaces to encourage collaboration and desks at heights to accommodate standing, kneeling or sitting on the floor. Some of the furniture being explored is 'movement permissible’ and is designed to allow students a degree of wiggle room that is reported as enhancing focus for some learners. Long days of sitting in hard plastic chairs does little to assist anyone’s focus but a little comfort and the possibility to shift your weight can overcome some of the obstacles to learning that arise out of environmental factors.
A recent addition to the mix is a set of combination chair and desk. Similar in form to the desks we might recall from university lecture halls, the modern version accommodates learning with ample desk space, storage under the chair and wheels to allow a speedy reconfiguration of the room. Students are able to quickly form small groups, and then shift again to share their learning with another set of learners while taking all they need with them. The smaller footprint and ease of movement of these desk and chair combinations allows a large open floor space to be easily created to facilitate learning that requires additional room.
A tradition of the primary classroom is the use of under desk storage. This feature ensures students have what they need close by and keeps the classroom neat but can equally restrict options as students feel they belong to the one space in the room where their belongings are stored. Under desk storage is perhaps a remnant of the educations history where students would typically have a large pile of exercise books, text books, novels and a multitude of pencil cases to hold all of their stationery needs. With much of this now replaced by electronic devices less space is needed and by doing away with under desks we have created a more dynamic learning space.
The key here is that we are actively thinking about the connections between the learning and thinking we hope to make routine and the physical environment in which it occurs. Rather than being directed by our experience of school we are considering what the environment might be like and how that may best support our goals.
by Nigel Coutts