Re-imagining Learning Spaces to inspire contemporary learning – Part One: Models for Change

Welcome to Part One of a two-part series on designing contemporary learning spaces. In this article, I will discuss and explore a range of models that support learning space re-design. Before you launch into making and re-arranging, I urge you to browse this page. If you need to ask for permission or funding from your Principal or other funding authority to undertake a redesign, it pays to know your facts and be well informed as to why the redesign is important, and how it will positively influence learning. Everything you need to answer the curly questions is right here! Once you have the go-ahead, jump over to Part Two, where I have curated a range of easy, inexpensive and practical ideas for re-imagining and recreating your learning space into somewhere that you and your students will love to spend time in!

By Laurentius de Voltolina – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain
By Laurentius de Voltolina – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain

Why should learning spaces change?

How much have classrooms changed since this lecture at University of Bologna in Italy in the mid-fourteenth century? How much have they changed since you went to school? I remember my classroom in 1981 at St Mary’s in Warwick. I was in Grade 1. My desk was wooden, and shared with another person. They were screwed into the floor, and they took up the whole floor space. Now, 35 years later, we would be horrified to see a classroom like this, but between the 14th century, and 1981, not much had changed….then along came the internet; and EVERYTHING changed. With the internet came an explosion of information that totally changed how we view learning – along with rapid developments in technology, which allows us to access it.

Knowledge now lives not just in libraries and museums and academic journals. It lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network…From Too Big To Know, David Weinberger, p12, 2011

It used to be thought that the amount of knowledge and information required from schooling could be held in the teacher’s head, and the aim of school was to transfer this knowledge from the teacher’s head into the ‘empty’ bucket of the student. Even though we know now that this is not the case, we now have technology which forces us to realise that this model will no longer work. There are some facts that will stay the same for a long time, and that we need to function – i.e. basic maths facts, spelling – numeracy, literacy, foundational understandings in different subjects. However, there are also massive amounts of rapidly changing knowledge created by the interactions that the internet enables. (To learn more about the current state of knowledge, check out Knowing Knowledge, by George Siemens, or, if short on time, read my blog post about it).  Even if we could hold it all in our head, why would we want to, when the technology in our pocket (our phone) allows us to access any or all of it, whenever we need? I know that this is an extremely simplistic summary of knowledge, learning and technology; however I believe that it is this rapid change in what we need to learn, and how we need to learn it that has been one of the major reasons for the realisation that designs of learning spaces that have worked for 500 years now need to be re-examined. Fortunately there are some excellent models that we can use to guide our learning space redesign.

Models for Learning Space Design

18 Learning Modalities

Nair, Fielding and Lackney are education consultants and architects, and their book The Language of School Design provide a range of design patterns that can be used to inspire those who are at the early stages of designing learning spaces. What I want to share with you from their book are the 18 learning modalities that they have identified as representing the foundations for schools focused on developing creativity, innovation and collaboration skills in their students.

nair fielding lackey
Purchase this book and

I don’t think that this list is perfect; it is a very long list, which makes it difficult to work with. Also, as Harrison and Hutton point out in their book Design for the Changing Educational Landscape, it mixes pedagogical choices with curriculum approaches; e.g. peer tutoring, lecture format and one-on-one learning are about how students are being taught; whereas project based learning and art based learning are more about how the curriculum is structured.

The Seven Spaces model

We know that high quality teaching and learning happens when students are giving a range of different ways of encountering and structuring information and when they have many different opportunities to share that learning with others; but how this translates into the design of the learning space is better expressed by the following model by Ewan McIntosh:

The seven spaces that Ewan McIntosh speaks about were originally 6 spaces of social media, which Matt Locke came up with. To these 6 spaces, Ewan added the 7th, Data. He suggests that learning spaces (be they classrooms, libraries, office buildings; anywhere where people come together and learn (which is actually everywhere, really), should enable these 7 different types of experiences. It may not be possible to have all 7 of these in highly structured ways in a single classroom; keeping these 7 in mind, and trying to be creative with flexible, movable furniture and layouts provides a good framework when thinking about contemporary learning spaces. The 18 learning modalities fit within these 7 spaces; and some, like student presentation can fit under a few; the only two that don’t neatly fit are distance learning and social emotional learning – I suggest because these could be achieved through almost all of the spaces, depending on the task, the technology and the learner. 7 spaces

The 7 Spaces: in depth

Participation spaces: These are spaces where theory is turned into practice; hands on learning, active learning, and problem solving happen here. So maker spaces are a great example of a participation space; or a school veggie patch, or maybe a kitchen where the kids prepare a morning tea for a local old age home; where learning becomes practical, and the space supports that participation. In a participation space, there is not just one focal point (such as the teacher) – there are many focal points, as learners look to each other, what they are working on or the environment itself for learning.

Watching Spaces: Sometimes, we need to sit down and listen. Whether it is a guest speaker, or an important lesson point being explained by the teacher, or even viewing a pivotal part of a documentary, watching spaces are important. When we plan watching spaces, we should ensure that the acoustics are good (so everyone can hear what is being said) and the seating is comfortable and preferably tiered (so everyone can see). Tiered seating doesn’t have to be fancy or built in; this teacher took a power saw to the legs of some of her desks, and lowered the tables to different heights, giving stools to the students at the back and cushions at the front. Or perhaps pallets could work, having one at the front, two on top of each other behind and 3 behind that. Get the students brainstorming and you will be amazed what they come up with! (just check with your WHS officer also!)

Performing Spaces: These don’t necessarily mean having a stage – it could mean just sharing work publicly. Coming from an early years’ background, I always used student work to decorate the classroom, but this tends to happen less as the years pass. It doesn’t have to be artwork to display work; putting the ‘thinking’ that happened up on a wall using post it notes or butchers paper can mean that ideas aren’t forgotten as soon as the board is wiped clean. Give students space to ‘play’ or ‘act out’ their learning – using drama strategies, or even allowing them to express their understandings using music or art. Performance is not just about demonstrating learning – Ewan McIntosh says it is also about giving students a chance to try different  identities, and to become something that they are not normally; games can allow this (in Guild Wars, which is a massive multiplayer online game I am a green skinned elfin type, who is awesome with a bow and arrow!) and introducing gaming and play into learning (and the spaces to do this in) has been shown to increase engagement for some learners.

Group Spaces: The group learning space is something most classrooms have available to them; but even if your students currently sit at desks arranged in groups, take a close look at them. Does the arrangement require students to twist uncomfortably to interact with all members? Are the desks so large that they are sitting too far apart to speak quietly with each other? Classrooms are often just one big open area, and group work can be difficult if each group is competing against each other to listen and talk in the noisy environment.  Think about how you sit with your friends when you are in a group, and watch how groups of students move together at lunchtimes. It’s for group work that having flexible, moveable, re configurable furniture makes the most sense. Make IKEA your friend, or check  out Spotlight for some bright fabric to make simple curtained off areas. You could even create dividers using refrigerator boxes, painted by the students;

Secret Spaces don’t mean spaces that the teacher can’t observe or that students can hide in to get up to mischief. They are the spaces students can go to when they want time on their own for quiet reading/study or reflection. Alternatively, they are the spaces where the teacher and student or two students can go for peer tutoring, conferencing or discussions. In a secret space, the student should feel safe and comfortable, able to be themselves and not be ‘on show’. I believe these spaces are also immensely important for introverted students; who find the noise, group activities and collaboration draining and need time to ‘recharge’.

Ewan McIntosh echoes the Third Teacher in saying that teachers should ‘make peace with fidgeting’ , and realise that growing bodies often process information while moving. Another version of the secret space could be as simple as a rocking chair (there are ones available specifically for sitting at desks) which enables students to subtly rock and move their body, without causing distraction or interruption to anyone else.

Publishing Spaces: The publishing space is where learning is shared; similar to the performance space, however pushing the work out into the wider world and community. A publishing space could be as simple as a bookshelf where student writing is made available, or a noticeboard where student work/achievements/activities/ongoing problems to be solved are shared. If classes have Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, these could be projected onto a screen to share the learning with people as they travel past; there are lots of ways to acknowledge the active learning that is happening, sharing it and breaking down the walls between what goes on ‘in’ school and the rest of the community – school, local community, or if publishing digitally, the global community.

Data Spaces: Data is used to improve space all of the time. Monitor the temperature in your classroom with your students, and use this real time data to come up with ways to cool/heat the room; or to move out to a cooler location at the hottest part of the day. Interacting with data/technology also requires spaces – preferably ones that allow for seamless use – there’s nothing worse than the whole class having to decamp to a lab in order to access computers! The data space may be the most difficult one to work with on a tight budget; but creative ways of using technology and making the most of the data that can be collected around the space makes students and teachers aware of how the space is impacting on learning.  Being aware of how data is used in the space could be something as simple as having a large QR code for each regularly accessed site (e.g. school portal, state library database etc) – having the students scan the qr code is much quicker than having them type in the web address!

Thornburg’s 4 Spaces

thornbergs spaces
Read more and purchase From the Campfire to the Holodeck by David Thornburg here

My favourite model for defining learning spaces comes from the work of David Thornburg. He takes an even simpler, four aspect approach to describing learning spaces. These are: the campfire, the watering hole, the cave and life. Thornburg notes that in a time of constant change, these four styles of learning have stayed similar since primordial times.

The campfire is the place where students gather to hear the wisdom of the expert. In long ago times, this was where people gathered to listen to the storyteller, who was the keeper of wisdom in the community. Today there are still times when students need direct instruction; and the campfire space is where this happens. Nowadays, the fire has been replaced with a data projector and screen, or an interactive whiteboard, but the concept remains the same. We know campfire learning can be important; how popular are Ted Talks, which are essentially campfires distributed digitally all over the world? We just have to ensure we don’t spend all day sitting around the fire, talking at our students!

The watering hole is the place for social learning. Because conversation requires a different way of thinking to when we are alone, dialogue is a way of creating knowledge. Social learning is central to education; without time spent talking and discussing learning with others, students aren’t challenged to reach the next level in their understanding; the basics of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Think about how many ‘ah-ha’ moments you’ve experienced when talking through issues with your colleagues. In a typical, naturally evolving conversation, research has shown that no matter what size group you start out with, people tend to form groups of two or three members. Does your learning space offer ways for students to cluster in these small groups comfortably to work on problems, discuss their learning? Thornburg suggests that in many school situations, the opportunity to converse is so limited that this is the reason why school hallways and social spaces are so noisy – it’s pent up demand for conversation that is exploding out as soon as it can!

The cave is the home of reflective learning – it is where students work alone, making meaning of their learning, facilitated with outside resources (e.g. books, websites etc). Thornburg suggests that if the campfire is home to the lecture, and the watering hole home to dialogue, the cave is home to cognitive construction of understanding. So  often we associate learning only with doing – and see quiet thinking as ‘doing nothing’ – how often has someone come up to you while you are sitting quietly and said, hey, can I interrupt you while you aren’t busy? In a library we traditionally have silent study spaces; but in the classroom, where a lot of learning takes place, we don’t offer this opportunity! It is particularly important for introverted students. We need to recognise the importance of thinking and reflection as part of learning, actively teach it to our students, and give them the opportunity to experience a quiet space.

Life is the most neglected space in the classroom; because so often we see the classroom as separate to ‘real life’ when in fact it takes up so much of our student’s life!  The opportunity to get hands on, to apply learning in a practical way seems to decrease as the years pass. Currently there is a lot of interest in makerspaces, which are a terrific example of learning through doing – and as technologies become increasingly inexpensive, it becomes easier bring these types of opportunities into the classroom.  Technology also allows a much more authentic way of applying learning; examples such as students publishing their work to platforms like Wattpad, which is a fanfiction sharing app, or editing Wikipedia pages with their research – allows students to see how their learning in the classroom actually has a real world context also.

thornberg and mcintosh

Here we can see the seven spaces of McIntosh simplified even further. So we have gone from 18 learning modalities suggested by Nair, Fielding and Lackney , to seven spaces suggested by Ewan McIntosh, down to four very intuitive, easy to remember spaces by Thornburg. The reason this is my favourite model is because not only is it much simpler to visualise and understand, its simplicity means that students can share in the language also. When students have developed a little bit of metacognitive language around their learning spaces, they are also able to take control of their learning and their learning spaces – they can move to the space that best fits the type of learning that they are doing, and be able to explain exactly why this space is going to help them in achieving their learning goals.

Wrapping Up

So you’ve made it to the end of this information packed page. Now check  out Part Two, where I explore practical ways to bring about change in your classroom. It doesn’t have to involve architects and builders, nor does it have to cost much money. Getting your students involved and designing a learning space where both you and your students feel comfortable, safe and ready and able to learn is the key. Part Two will inspire you with ideas for just how to do that!