Flexible Learning Spaces - Hype or Hope?

If you know me, you know I’ve been interested in flexible learning spaces for quite some time, ever since I had the opportunity to recommend designs to my school for our learning lab remodel. (Here’s my Pinterest board about flexible learning spaces.) I never got to see that remodel (a mixture of my design and others) yet I didn’t lose interest in the idea of alternative seating, grouping, freedom from built-ins, etc. Now that I’ve returned to the content classroom for a little renewal of my experience in ELA and Social Studies, I have played with various ideas in my own room. We don’t have anything fancy, like a few of the redesigned spaces in my school, but I think I am happy with the balance I’ve found between traditional seating and opportunities for different learners to work in different ways. We have:

  • An alcove/small hallway which provides a quieter place to read audiobooks, watch assigned videos, or make a video response.

  • We have Kindles and mobile devices to check out, along with chargers and headphones, just like any other library book.

  • A reading center with about 100 YA used and new books I’ve gathered. (There were zero when I walked into the room the first time.) The center has a rug, many pillows, a forest theme, and a big window.

  • Yoga balls, lawn chairs, fidgets, jiggle boards, storage cubes, wooden step stools, foam pads, 1 bar stool, and 4 standing desks.

  • We have 26 traditional desks which regularly configure into different groupings and for different purposes, like Model U.N. simulations, Socratic Seminars, learning stations, and small-group presentations.

  • We have whiteboard paint now in the “back” of the room so we can use multiple spaces for writing, brainstorming, projecting, and collecting data.

My own personal research and experience has shown me that the flexible spaces have as much potential for solid learning as for distraction, but classroom management seems to be the key. Things can go from organized and productive to chaotic and distracted in a really short time. Teachers need to be visible, moving, conferencing, checking, and gently redirecting at all times. I admit this is very hard to do 100% of the time but we can be aware and try for that ideal.

Here’s a taste of some research by some folks in the United Kingdom, published on Edutopia as part of their series on flexible classrooms. This quote summarizes best for me what flexible seating successfully is all about:

"The big insight? Optimizing all of these physical characteristics of primary classrooms improved academic performance in reading, writing, and mathematics by 16 percent. The personalization of classrooms—including flexibility, which Barrett defined as “student choice within the space”—accounted for a full quarter of that improvement.

Another way to look at it: Classroom flexibility, isolated from other measured factors, appears to be roughly as important as air quality, light, or temperature in boosting academic outcomes."

Because of the research, I will continue to offer varied and mixed styles of tables, desks, chairs, and movement for my students.