Democratising the learning space

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague recently about how we reconceptualise/redesign the learning space. It’s not simply about shifting furniture or painting walls but looking at how we fundamentally strengthen the relationships within those learning spaces. Can designing new learning spaces facilitate this?

Mary Featherston is an Australian interior designer with a long standing interest in learning spaces. She has documented her work with Wooranna Park PS in Victoria on her website. The report is fascinating and I was struck by this sagacious quote from the Reggio Emilia Project in Northern Italy:

can the physical environment be a teacher in itself?

If it is true, then we have deprived students of the 19th and 20th century of the opportunity to engage with their physical environment by building factory-like schools where the traditional gate-keepers of knowledge stand sentinel at the front of the classroom. 

What I liked about the Inside-Out project was that students and teachers were asked to identify the activities which were to take place and the qualities they believed were important to them. The result is flexible, functional and dynamic learning spaces, which evoke ‘democracy and respect’ .

It’s not often ‘democracy’ and ‘respect’ are used by students and staff to describe their learning spaces but this is what happens when your design is built on good principles of learning, understanding how students learn and today’s pedagogy.

6 thoughts on “Democratising the learning space

  1. Interesting post Greg. Catering for curiosity, learning and a diversity of needs. Reminded me a little of a Learning Support Classroom at Canberra Primary School in Singapore. A single classroom yet there were opportunities for the children to study/relax/explore in discrete settings depending on their needs.

    Thanks for the tip re the Reggio Emilia Project.

    PS. Just noticed that the link to Mary Featherston’s web page is slightly incorrect.

  2. I have to take some issue with the rather extreme comment that we have deprived students of the opportunity to engage with their physical environment. This to me seems to assert that the only teaching done in the last decade has been by a teacher standing at the front of the room in an austere classroom. Certainly in my experience and practice in secondary and visits to primary schools that is not the case at all. No doubt very few are desigend in the way Mary illustrates and that project does look great but lots of teachers and lots of schoosl have used the physical environment for a whole host of subjects and projects. Visit many Art rooms or TAS rooms or Science rooms or modern libraries to see this in action. Most primary school classrooms Iv’e seen ahve been wonderful immersive environmenst using all manner of physical nad virtual props and devices to enhance student learning.Practical maths using “real world'” things and environmenst has long been in evidence. I don’t doubt the wonderful opportunities that projects like Mary’s reveal but I think lots of teachers for lots of years have been doing plenty outside the box!- to me that is real sagacity!

  3. It is not that such examples do not exist and that there are not innovative and creative teachers who are doing good things. however the reality is that most schools are built as stand alone adult orientated facilities which reflect issues of the control, administration and order rather than facilitating learning. T is much work going on around the world in thinking of ways to embed schools more deeply into the community infrastructure and the community fabric. Where are the voices of the educators in this dialogue?

  4. Greg, I don’t think it is the physical space that is the issue, but the perception of the learning space itself that holds the key to the learning you envisage. We have tried to ‘open up’ the learning spaces at HFS…but it is not really the physical environment that has changed. Our learning structures are changing as we learn more about collaborative learning, connecting and sharing our work through online communities and sharing decision making about learning objectives, through shared analysis of data. This is a huge challenge as it is different to everything we knew in the past. This environment asks us to question what we fundamentally believe is important…what we are doing and what we want for our students. We have slowly begun to move into a situation at HFS where we are ready to look at our place in the broader community, but it takes work, it takes great leadership and it takes that security and confidence where people are willing to take a chance.

  5. The design of space is paramount in opening up opportunities for people to learn.

    My experience is that the physical space that is made for any experience is the opening stanza in the dialogue. Our cultural frameworks fundamentally tell us how we can do things, or not do things as we enter a particular space or room. Hence for a learning experience the entry into a space determines much about the attitude and approach that people take to engage the space and the opportunities the space provides.

    We know from research that colours trigger emotional responses – so painting a room a particular colour can set a mood. The height of a ceiling can evoke particular approach to ideas… there is a body of research that says the higher the ceiling the more ‘big picture’ and less task focussed kind of thinking happens. Where as the lower the ceiling the more task and detailed focus type thinking occurs.

    The spiritual practice of hospitality is built on the notion of creating space for people to be able to experience and learn with the another person.

  6. Yes, the physical environment is the third teacher. Where some reform is going wrong, I believe, is that the physical environment is being transformed without transforming the philosophy and pedagogy.
    What Wooranna Park is doing/has done is transform it all and continue to do so. I have just been working on a project to digitise the school’s “La Raison D’Etre” The reason for being. You will see how the school is grappling with how the transformation of the physical environment works alongside the philosophy and pedagogical practices.
    (NB: You will need to download Microsoft Silverlight to view this website. It’s a brand new application, and downloads just the same way acrobat reader, flash player etc work.)

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