Creating Space to Re-imagine the Learning Environment

How can we better help teachers imagine the changes they need to make to improve their learning environment?

Manipulating the space. What can we do here?

Manipulating the space. What can we do here?

If you believe, as I do, that effective design and use of space springs from engaging in meaningful dialogue, then we should be better at how and where we conduct these conversations, and indeed with whom.

Often teachers I talk to about how they learn how to use the spaces they are given, rely on a degree of trial and error, and in the privacy of their own classrooms. Sometimes they are reluctant to be too “experimental” because of perhaps time pressure, judgement from other teachers or even the overall school environment which may predicate against trying something different. It is often easier to go with what they know works for them, and certainly many would rather avoid ‘experiments’ especially if they are in an education context where annual policy changes seem to be one failed experiment after another.

So, how do we make it easier?

Very often it helps if people can see what others do so that they can take ideas that are relevant to them to develop in their own context. But, even better if they can actually experience these things for themselves.

When we visit other places we often see and experience familiar things in a new light. New things seem to become possible.

Sometimes all it takes to reveal these new possibilities is a new way of looking at a problem. It may be that somebody says something about what they are observing. It may be that what and how teaching is being done is different. It may be that something is missing that ‘should be there’ – a familiar pattern is broken.

To create a place for this to happen, two things are needed. First, somewhere that people can feel safe exploring and being curious, and are allowed to voice an opinion; second, somewhere that is stimulating and has enough components that can easily be reconfigured to test ideas and spark new thoughts. A kind of laboratory.

These sorts of laboratories do of course exist both inside and outside universities. But few schools or teachers are able to, or have ever accessed them. A good example outside the university context is in the UK at LearnSpace. The vision behind LearnSpace is “to explore the convergence between effective learning practices and well-designed spaces”. An industrial building has been fitted out in such a way that people can create different teaching and learning settings using easily different types of furniture that can be easily moved. LearnSpace can be used for training teachers to teach ‘space’, or for bringing teachers and designers together to explore different kinds of learning space and pedagogy, and the implications of one on the other.

With space at a premium, many schools may not want to set aside the area needed to create their own ‘exploratory’. Even if they do, the very fact that it is at the school may mean that people may feel less comfortable unless there was a clear segregation. But it may be possible for a group of schools in a district or local area to get together to share the burden of creating an ‘exploratory’ facility in one of them.

Who knows, by exploring different ways of using their space they may be able to reduce the amount they use, or even find they actually do have capacity to accommodate an increasing school roll.

To create an exploratory

Unless you are going to be able to spend a lot of money on creating a facility like the LearnsSpace facility, a single school or a group of schools could create their own on a limited budget.

What is needed is a reasonable sized space to provide enough flexibility so that you can create a range of different types of teaching/learningsettings. Say a large classroom. Think of it as a box that (to mix a metaphor) is a blank canvas. Indeed you could paint the walls (and floor, if possible) with something like whiteboard paint so that people can draw and write on every surface.

A range of furniture types tables, chairs, storage units, perhaps screens that can be used to represent walls. These components should be on wheels so that they can be quickly and easily moved. The idea is to explore how different spatial arrangements can be used in different ways during teaching – so quickly moving the bits around is essential.

Such a space should also be wifi enabled and depending on the budget various technologies should be included too.

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