Sunday, July 28, 2019

Flexible Spaces Need to Lead to Flexible Learning

Do you remember the classrooms that you learned in as a child?  I sure do and not for many positive reasons. Each room was a carbon copy of one another, where you would have as many uncomfortable desks lined up in cute little neat rows.  The exception was science classrooms flush with lab tables. However, there still was the issue of sitting in chairs for long periods of time that killed our backs. Uncomfortable seating options and a lack of movement not only led to discomfort, but it also had a negative impact on engagement. Now don’t get me wrong; some lessons were extremely engaging.  The issue, however, was that the conditions under which learning was supposed to take place were not conducive to the process at all. Little did we know at the time that classroom design could be something different. It was what we always knew and came to expect and never thought twice about it.
"School should be a place that learners want to come to….not run away from." 
Evolving research on the importance of classroom design and routine movement has begun to uplift the status quo.  Some fantastic changes are being implemented in schools across the world. For some, typical classrooms with desks in rows are now a thing of the past. They have been replaced by more contemporary furniture that is not only comfortable but also modular.  Flexibility, choice, and movement are all being incorporated to make the school experience more enjoyable while setting the stage for increased engagement. The key is to create the conditions for our learners where we, as the adults, would want to learn. 

Here is the rub.  As spaces change has pedagogy as well? In some cases, the answer is no. Now I am not trying to be negative, just honest. If kids are comfortable while receiving direct instruction or all completing an activity at the same time, then what’s the point of new furniture or updated spaces? As the saying goes, if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. As precious funds are used to upgrade classrooms and entire schools, improvements to learning must be at the forefront, something Tom Murray and I emphasize in our book Learning Transformed.  Flexible spaces need to lead to flexible learning. 

Here are some questions to consider when it comes to space redesign:

  • How will it support more movement and application of knowledge or competencies?
  • How will it promote higher levels of student agency?
  • How will pedagogy change in ways that emphasize path, pace, and place?
  • How will assessment and feedback change or improve?
  • What will be the role of technology?
  • What professional learning support is needed to maximize the use of flexible spaces?

If you have already invested in flexible seating, think about the questions above in terms of what has changed.  One strategy that addresses all of the questions I posed is a move towards pedagogically-sound blended learning.  It is important not to confuse this with the use of technology to support or enhance instruction. Here is the difference. 
"Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace."
The three “P’s” in the description above combined with choice are what allow flexible seating to live up to both the hype and potential to improve learning for kids.  In my work with schools on implementing blended learning to maximize the investment in innovative spaces, I typically showcase several models that I have found to be most effective. These include station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and flipped lessons. I highly suggest you check out this post, which goes into detail on the pedagogy of blended learning. 

Educators are now inundated with ideas on how to better design classrooms and schools. It is always prudent to take a critical lens to both the work and the investments that are made to determine if there are improvements to learning and school culture.  It is ok to be skeptical of what you might see shared on social media when it comes to learning spaces (or anything for that matter).  We need to move away from classroom design that is “Pinterest pretty” and use research, design thinking, and innovative pedagogy guide the work. The space will not improve outcomes all on its own. It’s how the space is used in ways that better prepare learners for now and the future that will. 

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