In the modern learning environment world, sometimes we use the f-word: flexible.
There is quite a bit of debate over whether an environment should be flexible (and able to be re-purposed into any configuration when needed) or purposeful (with clearly defined ‘learning settings’ that support particular activities). Both have their merits, but what’s the difference, and which is right for us?
As always with modern learning environments (or practice) a great place to start is with your values and beliefs about learning.
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are”
– Roy Disney
When planning changes to your physical environment (or even buying new furniture), it’s important, as a community, to talk about what good learning looks like. A great way to do this is to have people talk about their theories of learning and what sits behind those theories: “I believe powerful learning happens when learners are active rather than passive”, or, “Student ownership of the learning process leads to powerful learning.” The unpacking of these theories to explore whether they are based on research, hunches, student voice, or personal experience is a powerful way for staff to begin to make decisions about physical learning environments.
Once these conversations have taken place (and are set up to continue to take place), a school or centre can best determine whether flexible (the f-word) or purposeful learning settings are best. Here are some case studies for each:
- Flexible: if we determine that reflection is extremely important to the learning process, and that giving learners 15 minutes at the end of the day to write down and crystalise their learning breakthroughs, then we’re going to need to turn the whole learning environment into a quiet reflective space for the last 15 minutes of the day. This might require us to move furniture into more of an ‘individual, reflective’ setting rather than the ‘collaborative, group learning’ setting that is the default through the rest of the day.
- Purposeful: if our vision for learning is about personalisation alongside our understanding of the importance of reflection, we might set up a part of the learning environment that is permanently dedicated to supporting reflection, whenever learners are ready for it. Perhaps a quiet ‘imagine’ space, or a dedicated room for the purposeful writing and posting of blog entries.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
– Winston Churchill
One of the advantages of a purposeful approach to learning settings is that we can use them to encourage particular ways of learning. If our school or centre has a strong emphasis on performing arts, on celebration, and community building, we might prioritise tiered seating and performance spaces (both indoor and outdoor) in all our learning environments. If we provide deliberate, purposeful spaces like these, then learners are ‘shaped’ to see performance as a natural part of the learning process, perhaps more than if they were simply given seats that are flexible enough to arrange into a performance space. In the same way, if messy play, construction, and experimentation spaces are purposefully provided, learners are more likely to associate experimentation, play, and trial and error with learning.
Either way, if you’re attempting to create flexible or purposeful spaces, a great starting point is an exploration between teachers, students, and parents about what good learning is, and what it looks like when you see it.
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