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Flexible Learning Space

When I started blogging a year ago at What Ed Said, I thought no-one would care about what Ed said and I’d never have any readers. Now I am part of a worldwide community of educators and loving it. I think a lot about learning, so I’m looking forward to thinking and learning with you…

Have you thought about how the physical environment impacts on the way learning takes place?

I had a great discussion with a colleague the other day, about the new flexible learning spaces at our junior campus. They’ll be moving next week and nothing will be the same again! She loves change and challenges, as do I, and listening to her speak passionately about the possibilities, I wished I was part of it.

The new building doesn’t have classrooms in the old sense of the word. Each year level has a series of spaces: one closed room for explicit teaching, an open space for group work, an area with computers, places for small group withdrawal and a student conferencing area. There are also outdoor patios, wet areas and project areas.

Teaching and learning in this sort of environment will be very a different experience. The teachers have worked with an expert in flexible learning spaces to help them shift their thinking about what teaching and learning might look like. They have been provided with a variety of team-building opportunities, since they will be working in teams at year levels now. They visited another school which has implemented a flexible learning environment to observe the day-to-day organisation of learning in this way.

While the outlook is positive on the whole,  some teachers are more excited than others about embracing change. There are those who find the whole idea stressful and don’t really understand what’s ahead. I loved the analogy they were given of people being led into a cave. The leader has a strong torch and knows the way forward. Those near the front can see where to go, but those further back have to trust the leader or follow blindly in the hope that someone further forward will be leading the way. The stragglers at the back who can’t keep up, might unfortunately never get there. I’d be pushing myself forward to see what the leader was seeing, but I know some people would turn back and just go somewhere else!


We recently articulated our school’s learning principles. The new learning spaces should support these beliefs admirably:

Everyone has the potential to learn.

  • We learn in different ways, depending on abilities, learning styles, preferences and interests.
  • Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • Learning takes place when we make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • Learning for understanding occurs by acquiring skills and knowledge, constructing meaning and transfer to other contexts.
  • Learning is active and social and best takes place through collaboration and interaction.
  • Learning takes place when we feel secure and valued and are able to take risks.
  • Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
  • Learning includes meta-cognition and reflection, and requires learners to take ownership of their learning.
  • Learning is continuous, lifelong and ever-evolving.

The days of the teacher closing the door and doing her own thing are over. There is no door. I can’t wait to hear more about it. Watch this (flexible learning) space!

About whatedsaid

Teaching and Learning Coordinator at an IB PYP school in Melbourne, Australia. I'm a teacher, a learner, an inquirer...


9 thoughts on “Flexible Learning Space

  1. Edna – that sounds awesome. Environment – “the third teacher” – plays an often ignored role in teaching and learning, and certainly traditional school design, at least in the US, discourages flow, choice, and interdisciplinary work, especially when coupled with traditional scheduling.

    I dig the open space and teamwork at Mike Ritzius & company’s Integrated Studies Program, and I recently fell in love with this space at Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts. I like to dream, too, about school grounds designed for teaching and learning, not just for parking and recess.

    Last year I had a room big enough to be its own flex learning space. It was awesome.

    I’d love to see us do a series of visual posts sharing our own sketches of classrooms, schools, and/or grounds that we think would break down the fourth wall of education between schoolwork and the world.

    How do you think students will respond in the near and long terms?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 2, 2010, 6:36 am
    • Thanks for the links, Chad… so much interesting stuff to read and think about. I might have to give up my day job!

      I think students will love it from day 1 (they are 5-8 year olds) but teachers will take time to adjust. I think the learning environment will force some teachers to think about how learning works (rather that how teaching works) and make them change their practice. Will be interested in their reflections down the track.

      On the other hand, I don’t think teachers have to be completely limited by a less creative learning environment… as long as we focus on learning rather than teaching and on learners rather than teachers. And as long as we don’t let the classroom walls limit what’s possible, when there is a whole world out there 🙂

      Posted by whatedsaid | October 2, 2010, 10:46 pm
  2. The phrase “flexible learning space” drew me directly to this because studio classrooms are my current project and passion. I tell the unwary, those who have not heard this, that my ideal classroom is an open library with conference room and science lab attached. That will never come to pass. School design remains locked in a tragic design. It is tragic because the implicit understanding is teachers need to contain their inattentive groups and focus them on the carefully crafted teacher-centered activities. So the walls go up. We leave the doors open much of the time these days. I think we do that because we acknowledge we need openness. Beyond the walls of my classroom are all the facility and resources my students need. I just ignore the walls these days and send them out When I can, I send them out of the school and around the world. I am not alone in my school, others are doing this too. It makes it much easier to send my students around the school and into others classrooms when they reciprocate. We can build an open learning culture in our school this way.

    But the dream and desire for an open classroom remains because setting does matter. Just removing the rows of desks from my traditional room and replacing them with tables made a big difference. This made some students uncomfortable and two of the twenty-three young people were not able to make the transition. They need a defined sense of personal space so I reluctantly relinquished it to them. The rest have comfortable patterns of movement and favorite spots. I think that is a human response. They have embraced the idea that I am not essential to their learning and that the school facilities are theirs. Habit and tradition make me something of a gate keeper still. I’m not uncomfortable with that. There is an important shift in my room. I no longer direct them to learning spaces. They come to me to consult about learning spaces and increasingly, they move to where they need to be independently.

    The space might shape learning but thankfully, learning can defy the space. I think the learning principles articulated above influence our use of existing space. They certainly have influenced me. I’ll still dream of my perfect classroom though. I my mind, the walls in my end of the school evaporate.

    Posted by Alan Stange | October 2, 2010, 10:08 am
  3. Thanks for the interesting comment! I love the fact that your walls evaporate…

    I agree that learning can defy space. Here’s a post I wrote a while back on thinking about your (existing) learning space. It’s a bit simplistic (people seem to like those 10 ways posts) but it’s a starting point!

    Posted by whatedsaid | October 2, 2010, 10:55 pm
  4. Edna, I am so excited to have you here. The Australian work on re-envisioning learning spaces, and as you point out–really re-envisioning what teaching is about at a very fundamental level–is so powerful and important–we have a ways to catch up here. I love your “10 ways to think about your learning space,” too, because it is so real and tangible in describing the essential fact that the space we are in shapes our learning, and learning is shaped by the space. What do our spaces say about us? How can we develop professional discourse about this in American schools?

    How has your professional development helped you and your colleagues specifically to embrace these new understandings of your role as teacher? Your understandings of how learning occurs? Can you flesh that out for us?



    PS No one has links like Chad. No one.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | October 4, 2010, 9:10 am
    • Thanks, Kirsten. I went to listen to the head of our junior campus talking to the parent body last night about the new learning environment. I liked the way she drew everything back to our learning principles and her talk was excellent. What stunned me was the fact that, presented with such an exciting concept, even hearing that this kind of learning space would provide opportunities for personalised learning for their children, instead of being excited at the possibilities, these (mostly young) parents expressed every kind of anxiety and fear. (Won’t their children be distracted by noise from people doing other things? How will their teachers assess their learning if they don’t have them all day? Won’t their literacy and numeracy skills suffer?? What about safety? …)

      Just to clarify.. I don’t teach at that campus. (although my curriculum work takes me there once a week). I haven’t been part of the PD specifically provided for the teachers at that campus. But as a PYP school, we have embraced inquiry as a stance and have all manner of related internal and external PD opportunities. The most effective in-school PD has been in the form of voluntary focus groups where we share reading and discussion (a bit like anoffline version of Cooperative Catalyst!)

      Take a look at Classrooms for the Future It feature Wooranna Park, a similar design to ours.

      Posted by whatedsaid | October 6, 2010, 1:22 am
  5. i’m with you Edna.. so much to read and learn… give up our day job for sure.

    but… what if.. our day job was cleared of interruptions and imposed agendas. what if.. our day job was what we wish we could give it up for. that’s what we’re after.

    so on learning space. i love this post Edna.. thank you.

    Jason Fried describes 37 signals new and first real office space. he says the big space is disignated as silent. they have sound proof rooms for meet ups. very fitting with his mantra – work is where we get the least done… i think we can learn a ton from this.

    i love all the ideas above – can’t wait to study them more.

    what we are seeking next year as a connected adjacency.. a building such as this:

    where we can have designated silent areas, and local experts/entrepreneurs can have office space – so that they are available to students. where we can hatch/implement new ideas with pre-k and k-3. where we can have virtual mentor/hero spaces ie: a ted room. where kids studying music can create mini-juliard spaces and mini-recording studios, where dancers can dance. most of all – where a learner of any age is given permission/space/time to notice, dream, connect, do (learn how to learn).

    this particular building is in the center of town… and the plan is to have it be run by students, local entrepreneurs, parents, community members. an ecosystem of learning, the mesh, working it’s way out by osmosis to permeate our town space into a community of learners.

    James Bach suggests the town become simply a space of resource buildings… where, if the community is about learning… people pick and choose where to learn/teach/facilitate each day. that is our ultimate goal.

    Posted by monika hardy | October 15, 2010, 11:47 am


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