Building Flexible Learning Spaces while the Definition of “Spaces” Becomes Disrupted

Flexible learning spaces is an area of classroom management and teaching which has reached a new level of maturity. Recent classroom disruptions such as personalized learning, maker mindsets, and hacker cultures have promoted the idea that everything is customizable and allowed to be tailored to best suit individual needs.

A working flexible classroom requires many other aspects of learning to flexible as well. Photo – Giulia Forsythe – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/8553975181

In the past, schools have had field trips, shop classes, physical education, and other places of learning that were outside the box of a traditional classroom made of rows of desks with a teacher standing at the front. Recent classroom disruptions such as personalized learning, maker mindsets, and hacker cultures have promoted the idea that anything is custom and should be tailored to the best needs of whatever is going on in real time.

At the surface level, custom-space classrooms are leading by the example of customized learning. At a deeper level, custom spaces are an opportunity to embrace a learning environment as a key player in the learning. In the next decade, as virtual and augmented realities change our actual concept of space, this conversation will expand in directions we cannot predict.

This “modify all the things” inspiration has, of course, required a re-look at our classrooms to play with that example as well. Some of my questions intended to spur our collective thinking:

  1. What is the impact when collaborating with other classrooms or schools?

    We focus so much on our classroom lessons, but more and more we are Skyping/Google Hangouts/etc. with other schools and collaborating in ways outside of our walls. Flexible classrooms may support this by creating quick, smaller cohorts that make global collaboration more possible?

  2. How important are communication protocols with flexible spaces?

    Different physical configurations promote working in small groups, large whip-around, or pods of students learning in different arrangements. Ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to participate when the norms of collaboration change with different setups in a room can be complicated when we aren’t all participating the same way. Ensure we aren’t doing a disservice to our students needs to be a big part of the thinking.

  3. How can we move from flexible classrooms to flexible schools where multiple classrooms could be configured into areas collaboration where walls can be moved and areas of education focus can come together?

    Individual classroom flexibility is just one layer of the onion that makes up an entire school. If there are accessible ways to combine Math and Science departments or Writing and Design departments when lessons are specifically overlapping, the synergy that comes with flexible classrooms may provide some powerful learning opportunities that were too cumbersome and time-consuming to allow for in the past.

  4. How can flexible spaces align with other flexible learning concepts within the scope of personalized learning?

    As there is so much momentum around personalized learning, we need to take care that “flexible” becomes just a foundation that spaces, platforms, software, collaboration, and team-teaching can build on with consistency and cross-compatibility so these progressive ideas don’t do a disservice by operating on their own islands of innovation. Without larger integration, we risk good ideas becomes last year’s “flavor of the month”.

  5. This is sure to disrupt teachers in other classrooms that are not up to speed or don’t agree with flexible classrooms – What can be done culturally to support all types of learning in a school?

    As with all change in schools, there are human teachers all with different approaches, lesson plans, teaching styles, and philosophies. These dynamics do not always position a teacher to change quickly or at all without losing the spirit of a tried and true learning path by an individual. This has always been true and is a key challenge when integrating technology into education. The way forward is specific and individual to each school, teacher, and classroom. Continued growth as coaches and integrators needs to be a high priority.

  6. What is the role of the student in creating flexible spaces?

    If these spaces and innovations are intended to provide the strongest learning environment possible for our students, it’s critical they have a voice, mind, and hands in the creation. The creation of flexible spaces makes a lot of sense in the scope of the design cycle. As this process will inevitably bleed into how students think about all their spaces (personal, transportation, digital), having the process taken forward by students who will hack and discover their way through optimizing the details could be a huge, immersive learning opportunity.

  7. How can flexible learning configurations be integrated into the curriculum as part of the education planning far in advance of the lesson itself?

    I believe there is always major gains to be found in working and process-planning ideas like this with my curriculum office. Those with the big-picture understanding of the full scope of learning at a school often have feedback that is difficult to distil any other way. If the ideas of cross-class collaboration can be found as mentioned in #3, the curriculum office is an ideal place to brainstorm.

  8. Are there lessons from outdoor courses and the spirit of field trips that could use some reflection when redefining our classroom spaces?

    The concept of “stand up and leave the structure of the rows of desks” isn’t new, but it is much more accessible and less distracting to implement. So what knowledge resources are already out there? Exploration and conversations about the past thinking about spaces may provide us existing information about flexible learning spaces, just under different titles.

  9. What is the role of admin, the school, the district to support, budget, mandate (?), track progress and foster similar innovations that retains consistency within a school?

    While individual classroom innovation is fantastic, we also teach in a larger ecosystem than just our courses. Similar to the need to involve curriculum in the conversation, we, of course, must be having these larger conversations at the top level of our institutions. In the big picture, there may be other concepts, future planning, budgetary thinking. Brainstorming on any level is always of use, involving school leadership early is good practice and exists for this reason.

  10. How will VR transform our concept of collaborative space?

    The big one. Once we are no longer bound by the physical limitations of our spaces, what will it mean when a teacher can issue a command and reconfigure a classroom in real time? How can we embrace technology that could redefine what we think of physical space that isn’t more distracting than useful? Practical VR still feels far off, but as early demos from Facebook and others display, these areas will consume us quickly and completely. How we think of space that can change in real time is an enormous conversation that flexible learning spaces are just one part of.


    Is this the future of “space” and humans doing things “together”? Even the language we use to talk about VR collaboration will need reinvention.

Some other resources and thinking around Flexible Learning Spaces

What other questions are there? Have you seen other resources that show how this is done differently around the world?

Have you seen other resources that show how this is done differently around the world? Please share in the comments to build this resource library for everyone.

3 Replies to “Building Flexible Learning Spaces while the Definition of “Spaces” Becomes Disrupted”

  1. nickihambleton

    Hi Clint,
    What wonderful thinking about the future changes to education. Your question number 3 reminds me of the Innovation Strand Tricia is running at the next Learning 2 conference in Shanghai, where teachers pitch ideas that they want to run the following year back at their school. These often involve big changes that need time and support to implement but are based on thinking outside the box to truly transform learning. Paula Guinto has done lots of work looking at how we use our classroom space and she encourages us to find a hashtag, a focus for the new year and play with that theme throughout, both visually and conceptually in our teaching. She also connects the idea of physical spaces to online spaces. https://www.uwcsea.edu.sg/news/connected-spaces-support-learning-ms-english
    There are so many books about innovative spaces in business and yet not so many about schools – the one place where creative flow, collaboration and a variety of learners needs should be met. I look forward to seeing more resources shared and about how you continue to work towards creating flexible spaces for your learners.
    Have you seen this article and accompanying links? https://www.edutopia.org/blog/film-festival-learning-spaces-classroom-makeovers
    Thank you for getting me thinking about my own classroom for next year!
    Nicki

    Reply
  2. elliealchin

    This was an incredibly helpful post for me Clint, thank you. We are undergoing the shift to more flexible learning spaces at UWCSEA now and I am one of those teachers who has a ‘tried and tested’ method and could be seen by others as a bit resistant to new approaches. I am not resistant – I can see the value of challenging our thinking about learning but am also hesitant about jumping in until I have thought through all the implications as my team is large and there are lots of factors to consider.

    Two key ways in which our school has supported our preofessional development in this area is through a wonderful consultant who came to work with our teachers – Maija (this is her blog https://maijaeriika.wordpress.com/) and through Learning spaces book clubs. A team of self-selected early adopters read a text related to learning spaces and then meet to discuss it. I think these approaches could help to address issues 5 and 9 in your post.

    The clarity of this post really helped and I like how you asked questions to frame the issues. As a Geographer I particularly liked your point about being informed by other areas (point 8). We have no desks ‘in the field’ and yet some of the most powerful learning happens on field trips. This was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment for me. Thank you again.

    Reply
  3. TriciaGpers

    Hi Clint,
    Thank you so much for sharing these resources. We’ve been making some strong progress at my school on pushing our thinking about Learning Spaces. Something I’m working on and will continue to work on is an ‘audit’ to go through when teachers want to rethink their learning space. There is a conversation to be had before we make adjustments–and that has been a very powerful part of the revamps. My audit is here if interested: (slide 7) https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1lytwU1xwzYrz_0eV00HUAM0ZakDT8zCN54sX-QDVfpU/edit?usp=sharing

    Reply

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