Shaping a space for engaging learning

“Space matters. We read our physical environment like we read a human face” David Kelly

Some classrooms are traditional spaces with four walls and are closed from the outside world. Some (more recently designed) may be a large open space where two or more classes are working at the same time. These spaces tell us about how to work. Desks separated into rows and a teachers desk at the front of the room with a whiteboard (maybe an interactive waste of money) tells us of a culture of working alone and didactic teaching methods. More recently, classrooms are set out in groups to encourage collaboration. This is still not enough. Space has an impact on a range of behaviours. There is not one ideal design for a collaborative space as I hope to highlight in this blog post. I aim to write a series of posts on how I and colleagues experiment with space in the current months.

I’m currently reading ‘Make Space’ by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft from the Stanford D School. The book has a whole range of tools, situations, case studies and insights into how to design a space. I am firstly to focus on the most practical ideas in this blogpost.

Much instructional teaching can now be done through technology. Flip the content to outside the class gives an opportunity for hands on learning in the classroom. Often I will do this and focus on A4L, high quality pieces of writing and Project Based Learning within my classroom. The studio classroom is a classroom designed for transition. There maybe activities fluctuating from lectures to collaborative work. Having the flexibility and making the time to design the space for these activities is crucial. I’m not sure a learning space should always be configured in the same way. Most furniture is or should not be fixed

Are children primates? Why even have children sat at a desk? Let them use the window sill, the floor and see what happens. Of course in depends on the activity and how you want students to behave, if they are reflecting or working on a creative task. Should music really be banned? Or could it be used to create an atmosphere of ambience or to propel creative activities when required? Little rituals like asking students to take their shoes off before entering a space can remove the mental baggage of having to enter a certain situation. Remove all the seats if students are designing something crazy!! Objects create experiences, I love our schools ideas of having artefacts around school for the students to interact with. Allowing students to ‘own’ their space and create a sense of belonging could surely create a community atmosphere. A space that is designed by and for the students. Some ideas of how to do this would be great!

Configurating your space depends on the activity or learning taking place. The around the campfire tool is a group of people sitting low to the floor in a circle as an activity for interpersonal sharing. Children lined up outside a classroom is a classic opportunity for them to misbehave when waiting for their next lesson. Creating cul-de sacs where they can strike up conversations such as a bench or a few chairs creating a comfortable pause zone may or may not be a good solution. Places of honour (the teachers desk, offices) could be removed. I often do my marking when students are learning in the same space as me. Teachers, heads of faculty or senior leaders don’t need to be on a pulpit. Circles and symmetry set the groundwork for good ideas to be generated and students to feel comfortable. Small teams need space to meet if working on a group project, could this be a separate room or a designated space within a classroom (you could create a huddle room, we have small rooms with beanbags in our school that can be used for this purpose). Creating that space and allowing them to plaster walls or makeshift walls with their work could create a culture of teamwork by giving them a little acoustic privacy. Both visual transparency and acoustic privacy are important, my students often ask if they can work out in the corridor when working on a project. This is not to be out of sight to misbehave but because noise can be distracting and they want to have those learning conversations without the distraction. Hiding places are equally powerful. Call a relaxing space a name such as ‘The Garden’ because sometimes students need a break from open collaborative noisy classroom spaces.

Often in classrooms when the teacher is speaking or a student is presenting, there will inevitably students who have to turn around or playing with a pen and other annoyances – the configuration of the room doesn’t allow for this sort of learning. A theatre in the round would be more effective, get rid of rows and make a circle if you want to do a discussion activity or set the chairs in a semi circle for a presentation.

Making thinking tangible and evident is an important part of differentiation in the classroom and avoids too much cognitive load and less needed in the working memory to succeed. Spaces to record learning around the space is crucial. Show the world students thinking process, their drafts in a storage gallery. This makes progress tangible. It allows work to be visible for feedback. Where to store this sort of work visably is an interesting dilemma. Display ‘works in progress’ on walls, make displays dynamic and owned by students – even an official space to do so if your school is worried about this. Ipads act as capture devices that can capture works in progress. Writable surface everywhere!! reduce the working memory overload, write on walls, windows, anything with a dry erase pen. Ill be posting an image of this later this week!

LONDON drawing

Displays and signs that pop such as a topic or big idea, go that extra mile to make these stand out. The importance of displaying students work for the whole community or the world to see makes it authentic and worth putting the effort into. Making technology and resources accessible is crucial to the creative process. Laptops and ipads are great but can create a wall of separation between people, we have all had that in classrooms i’m sure when students carry on working on a device when they need to be listening to the teacher! Resources are often placed in cupboards out of site. Why not have papers, pens and other resources in plain site that can be used when students choose to do so to create inspiration?

On a less practical note but worth the vision and imagination. Foam cubes for students to sit on maybe preferable to chairs due to their easiness to move into different configurtations and to store and stack easily when more space is required. Deployable whiteboards to partition spaces and use in different situations. If you are a technology heavy school, use it to simulcast lessons or presentations, where students are in different spaces. This book has been very inspiring. To get a full idea I recommend reading the book!

All of these ideas involve a certain degree of risk and trust and a high degree of thought and prep. Trust because you have to trust students to work in environments when sometimes they may not be supervised 100% of the time. Maybe if they do go ‘off task’ it is the planning that needs to change and ensure students have fully bought into the lesson. Risk because it is not always a comfortable position for teachers and senior leaders to allow too much trust in students self direction. What you can achieve with your space depends on what you have and opening your mind to how it can be used. We have to curate our spaces to maximise the learning going on in our spaces.

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