Four Reasons to Tackle Flexible Learning Spaces

Since this past January, I’ve been the Elementary Principal of T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary School (TBD) in the Old Tappan School District. And, as I’ve previously detailed in my blog post – Flexible Learning Spaces: The Start of Our Journey – one of our first initiatives involved flexible learning spaces. In short, every teacher was given money to spend on furniture for his/her classroom.

Why Every Teacher?

Yes, every teacher had the option. This idea probably sounds a bit unconventional, as most initiatives begin with a pilot group that paves the way, making it easier for late adopters to follow. However, in this instance, due to certain constraints (timing, budget, etc.), I believe it made more sense to let everyone jump on board, which has its upsides. As Prakash Nair announces in Blueprint for Tomorrow, “Indeed there is evidence that reform efforts focused on improving the capabilities of individual teachers are less effective than those that engage teachers collectively.” There is value in everyone moving in the same direction at the same time while learning from one another and continually refining their work (or learning spaces) as necessary.

Why the Classrooms?

I also played with the idea of taking a look at other parts of the school, such as (1) furniture that would allow for students to more comfortably work in certain sections of the hallways, and (2) rethinking the area right outside the main office, which is what is first encountered when entering into the building. However, it didn’t take long to realize all of these changes would have been too much too soon. And, if we’re going to start anywhere, it makes sense to start with the classrooms, as this is where students and teachers spend the majority of their time. In The Third Teacher, John Stanford, the late superintendent of schools in Seattle, tells us, “The victory is in the classroom.”

Now let’s take a look at four reasons why we prioritized flexible learning spaces.

1. It Supports Current Teaching and Learning

As a school, Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop serve as the basis for our literacy instruction. And, the majority of workshop time is spent on conferring – students working independently (occasionally, in pairs) while the teacher provides small group or one-on-one instruction. As students read and write on their own, they generally enjoy doing so from all parts of the classroom: sitting up against a wall, laying down on the carpet, tucked in a classroom corner, etc. Our teachers deserve so much credit for being open-minded and allowing for our students to get comfortable, as opposed to telling everyone they have to work from their desks. And, many teachers have even brought in outside furniture, such as couches, to give their students more options. Now, with our increased emphasis on flexible learning spaces, we hope to further encourage and support these student-centered environments.

2. It Supports Future Teaching and Learning

As we move forward as an elementary school, one curriculum-related change involves the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as we’ll look to explore new science programming and adapt/write science curriculum. Another change involves Genius Hour; teachers have been encouraged to incorporate this approach into their teaching on a routine basis. (For support, 30 copies of Genius Hour by Andi McNair were purchased and distributed.) In general, both the NGSS and Genius Hour promote learning experiences that emphasize student inquiry, exploration, voice, and choice. Since the learning will be student-centered, we want the classrooms to reflect and support this mentality. As Rebecca Hare and Bob Dillon assert in The Space Book, “We are not decorating learning spaces. We are designing them to amplify learning.” In short, our spaces and our practices must go hand-in-hand. And, perhaps, the spaces can also be “a catalyst for pedagogical change” (Nair, 2014).

3. It Breaks Down Classroom Walls 

Several teachers are already breaking down classroom walls by: having students working in the hallways, incorporating our raised beds into student learning, bringing in outside experts, etc. More and more we want to continue to chip away at the “cells and bells” model of students learning in “boxes” and transitioning from one subject to the next at specified times. Taking a harder look at specific parts of our hallways could very likely end up being a natural next step. As Nair provocatively announces and then questions, “Hallways…are single-purpose spaces…they remain unused for the majority of the day…What if hallways could be turned into a space used for teaching and learning throughout the day?” And, through conversations, I have found that at least a handful of our teachers are already thinking about how they could further extend the flexible learning space approach beyond the four walls of their classrooms.

4. It Makes Students Comfortable

In Blueprint for Tomorrow, Nair writes what many of us probably already assumed, “When it comes to the physical aspects of schooling, there is perhaps nothing more important than the student chair.” And, in The Third Teacher, Dr. Dieter Breithecker, a sports and physical scientist, explains how many schools are failing in this area when he claims, “More than 80 percent of students are not sitting at a workstation that is adjusted to their body size.” Countless schools and districts have continued to rely on the traditional model of student desks because “that’s the way it’s always been done” and this idea is rarely framed as a problem that needs fixing – so it stays the same. (As an adult, think about how it would feel to spend even one day in a desk.) Thankfully, many of our teachers decided to purchase supplies that can serve as chair/desk replacements (such as thisthis, and this). And, based on what I’ve already seen, many of our students have been clamoring to try out these alternatives.

In the End

According to Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft in Make Space, “Shaping attitudes and the behaviors they inspire is the ‘holy grail’ of space design.”

In other words, flexible learning spaces is an approach and mindset that encourages change, but it isn’t the change in and of itself. Our spaces should promote more of the good that’s already happening, while also laying the foundation for future work.

For any school or district that is tackling flexible learning spaces, if the only thing that changes is the furniture, then a whole lot of effort has been spent on nothing more than making students comfortable – which isn’t bad, but we can do better.

Why do you think we should tackle flexible learning spaces?

Connect with Ross on Twitter or follow his blog.

Pat Mora