Flexible learning spaces: how infrastructure can support innovative learning

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Professional learning is constant and occurs on a daily basis because of the number of teachers in a space. Sharing a space enables you to have conversations and observe each other continuously. It is the best environment you could start your teaching career in, because you have the constant support and experience of colleagues around you.

— Sheena, Teacher at Stonefields Primary School

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A flexible learning space has the right acoustics, lighting, technology, heating and air quality to support learning. The spaces can be easily configured and used in a number of different ways to support and enable a range of teaching and learning approaches on any given day or at any time of the day. They can support single teacher whole ‘class’ teaching practice, and can adapt to a broader range of teaching and learning practices and groupings as a school’s education practices evolve over time.

Why create flexible learning spaces?

The environment in which we learn has a significant influence on the effectiveness of that learning, on our engagement and enjoyment, and on our desire to keep coming back for more.

The principles of both the NZ Curriculum and Innovative Learning Environments can and should be present in traditional classrooms. However, both are enabled and can be enhanced in flexible learning spaces with collaborative teaching. Meeting the needs of learners requires a range of teaching approaches, a range of spaces and the highest quality resources. The most important of these three is the human element. Teachers and leaders comment flexible learning spaces allow the power of teacher collaboration to be maximised in ways not possible in traditional classrooms.

Schools with more traditional, cellular classrooms shouldn’t despair. There are a number of big steps you can make towards becoming an innovative learning environment without touching the property. There is also a range of low-cost and no-cost improvements you can make to a teaching space (see below).

Spaces optimised for learning

A learning environment is only as good as the teaching and learning practice that occurs within the physical spaces. 

Our understanding of the teaching practice within innovative learning environments comes from an extensive research base, including the findings of our own study – the Best Evidence Synthesis Iterations. It also strongly aligns with the OECD’s work on Innovative Learning Environments.

These studies have informed the Ministry’s requirements for, and vision of, flexible learning spaces.

Flexible learning spaces get the basics right, by providing good acoustics, lighting, technology, heating and air quality. The Ministry prioritises these core elements when building or upgrading a classroom as the evidence shows that getting these elements right can be linked to student outcomes.

Flexible learning spaces should also allow teachers to structure multiple learning areas and activities so students can learn at a level appropriate to their own development. The spaces should be designed to support a teaching practice that encourages the use of digital technologies, working together across traditional student groups and problem solving.

People talk about the noise. In our flexible spaces we have separate breakout rooms for different modes of learning such as independent learning, collaborative learning, maker spaces, library areas, digital areas. Where can you do that in a traditional classroom? In a traditional space it is often all or nothing, in flexible spaces we are better able to tailor learning and spaces to the needs of the learners.

—    Neill, Principal, Waitākiri School

School Spatial Typologies

As a generalisation learning spaces have traditionally been built to respond to an approach to teaching that saw a teacher with a designated class teaching from the front of the room. A number of these individual spaces were served by a central corridor. You might recognise this as the first spatial typology below.

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This works well for class/workshop type instruction but lacks adaptability for use for other learning settings, as shown below. It also results in large, dedicated circulations spaces which might otherwise be incorporated into more space for learning.

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Research

  • Clever Classrooms – this report from the UK, based on the University of Salford’s Holistic Evidence and Design project, shows that well-designed classrooms can boost learning progress in primary school pupils by up to 16% in a single year.

Professor Peter Barrett provides an overview of Clever Classrooms [2:04]

The report also provides practical advice to teachers and designers about how to improve learning spaces quickly and at low-cost.