by Charlotte Hewson

This feature was first published in Journeys Winter 2018.

This article was written by Charlotte Hewson.

In past years the education world has been loaded with talk around the concept of flexible learning spaces. The field is bursting with literature that explores research-based teaching practices and the transformation of education through design. As teaching practices evolve, educational environments are reforming to align with a rapidly developing and connected world. 

Education is swiftly evolving. In keeping pace with the world in which we live, more and more schools are progressing toward a personalized curriculum that provides opportunities to meet academic standards in ways that are unique to the needs of each learner. This requires practices that elevate student agency, and enable meaningful relationships and collaboration with others. Customised pathways, learning communities, and competency-based progressions are central to personalized learning and therefore flexible learning environments are carefully designed to foster collaboration and support learning through observation, discussion, creation, or performance. Designing each space in a learning environment for a different type of experience, rather than for a subject or a teacher, allows schools to curate powerful experiences in compelling spaces.

As part of our strategic plan at SAS, we continue to strive toward building an organizational culture and an environment that is strongly defined and deliberative. We have come to recognize that to be truly exemplary and deliver on the promises of our mission and vision, an environment in which personalized learning can flourish is paramount to success.

Flexible learning environments host a variety of spaces to accommodate different learning needs and intended activities. A flexible learning environment can accommodate a large number of learners to allow whole class activities or multi-class instruction to occur. In addition to these larger learning activities, a flexible learning environment allows student communities to interact within very focused and strategically designed spaces. These defined spaces enable teachers to regroup their students in a variety of ways and allow for small group project work or instruction. Teachers can meaningfully collaborate and confer with students to address individual or small group needs. Research suggests that significantly more exploratory behavior, social interaction, and cooperation occurs in these spatially well-defined settings (Barret, 2015).

Over the years, we have implemented numerous pathfinder projects throughout the SAS campus. These pathfinders provide our faculty and administrators the necessary insight into flexible learning environments and how they align with our pedagogy. Dynamic spaces within these SAS pathfinders provide opportunity to bring flexible groupings together efficiently and effectively. 

A flexible learning environment is often a shared space that includes more than one class and teacher. These spaces bring together teachers that once worked in isolation. It’s an environment that cultivates partnerships, community, and responsibility among teachers who work together towards a shared goal to strengthen student performance. This shared environment opens line of sight to the work of colleagues as it includes a higher level of visual transparency between spaces. Such transparency allows teachers to observe and learn from teaching and learning occurring in other spaces, and to be observed in return (Osborne, 2013). Line of sight allows teachers the opportunity to team teach, and offer feedback on instructional practices in the form of professional development. In her research, The Missing Link in School Reform, Leana (2011) provides a persuasive research-based argument for strong collaborative networks among educators. Her research concludes that teacher social capital is vital for strengthening the educational system and for the success of students.

We live in a world of interaction and observation where we must learn, grow, and develop from one another. When asked about the benefits of the SAS kindergarten pathfinder spaces, teacher Mark Lewis described his kindergarten learning community as an opportunity for professional development on the spot.

Traditionally in schools, classrooms were designed to accommodate one teacher, a teaching assistant, and a class of students. A flexible learning environment hosts a larger number of students as it brings multiple classes together to form one community. This also means an increased number of adults are placed into a shared environment and community. This accelerates teacher collaboration and also allows teachers to facilitate learning in the moment. In a shared environment, teachers no longer have to solely rely on pre-collaboration in order to pre-plan lessons and units with colleagues. With multiple teachers and students located in close proximity with line of sight, teachers gain the chance to quickly regroup students and meet learners where they are at in the moment, instead of trying to anticipate the learning in advance. With more teachers assigned to one environment, there is higher opportunity to ensure no child goes unnoticed and each student need is addressed.

At SAS teachers that have moved into flexible learning environments have emphasized the strength of team teaching. In these spaces, faculty have the opportunity to tandem teach, teach and observe, or teach and pull small groups—in a purposeful manner. One teacher may instruct while the other roams. The roaming teacher is able to spot trends and observe the student learning in the moment. This allows collective student misconceptions to be addressed right away, as opposed to only being detected by the instructing teacher when they later come to assess student work.

When a number of teachers are working collaboratively in a shared flexible environment, they more readily see the connections across the skills and content within the specific course or subject they teach. Concurrently, students build their ability to see the world as inter-connected. Teaching in environments that are de ned by the flexibility of building or removing silos allows practices to become cross- disciplinary as needed. Teachers can more readily work with flexible groupings in interdisciplinary units by moving the walls and combining a learning activity with colleagues. Interdisciplinary planning and conversations allow teachers to develop a common language for skills that transcend subject areas. This common language creates transparency for students to understand and articulate what they are learning, why they are learning it, and what they are learning next. Students learn best when their school experiences have context and are connected through the disciplines.

In sixth grade science teacher Brendan Riley's class, while studying the topic of sustainability, students learned about how humans have an impact on the environment. Students also learned about rates, ratio, and proportions in math. Meanwhile everything they learned in ELA and social studies related to the theme of sustainability. Students were then assigned the challenge of employing a personal action that would reduce their ecological footprint.

Flexibility in a flexible learning environment refers to staffing and schedule, not simply space utilization and physical features. The design and operational elements are dynamic and respond to the needs of students in achieving their learning goals. Teachers have the ability to flex their schedules.

For example at SAS, teachers might revise their daily schedule, shortening some classes to create a block of time for a guest speaker, provide extension for students who have already grasped the learning, or use the additional time to create connections between disciplines.

These flexible blocks help students personalize their learning path, offering further opportunity for voice and choice in their learning.

Furnishings, often including walls, within a flexible learning environment, can be moved to respond to the daily requirements of different activities and/or to suit the different needs of students. If an activity requires a large audience of students, for example, a teacher delivering instruction, walls can be pulled aside to create large accommodating spaces. Alternatively, when a project requires small or individual group work, walls can create separation. Additionally, lightweight furniture such as tables and chairs that can be moved around easily, allow students to quickly pair up without the need and time to move heavy desks in order to establish eye contact. A  flexible learning environment also considers the importance of comfort levels for students and teachers. An uncomfortable student can quickly become a distracted and irritated student. Unlike the identical chairs found in traditional classrooms, a flexible learning environment boasts an assortment of seating options for students to choose from. Students feel empowered by having some degree of choice and control over their environment. Seating options can range from high stools to armchairs to stability balls. Teachers can also benefit from identifying best fit seating for their students to ensure higher levels of focus and engagement.

SAS kindergarten faculty noticed that their students suggested creative ideas about how space and furniture can be utilized. To make more use of the stage area in their classroom, students recommended placing a table on the stage. 

Natural and softer lighting as opposed to traditional fluorescent lighting is used in flexible learning environments. Such spaces place emphasis on the importance of natural connections to the outdoors. Turning off artificial light, and opening up spaces to natural daylight provides a variety of benefits from improved focus to better student health. For example, natural light is known to regulate sleep/wake cycles. Research has indicated that children in classrooms with the most daylight and biggest windows progress approximately 20 percent faster in math and reading (Barret, 2015).

The SAS early learning center hosts six beautiful and bright learning environments. With floor to ceiling glass walls, these learning spaces share natural light and promote transparency.

A flexible learning environment stimulates and drives curiosity, provokes ideas, and promotes discussion. This can be achieved through the easy access of resources and materials granted to students. With these provided resources in reach, students are encouraged to experiment and take further ownership in their learning. Through guided exploration these accessible resources, such as craft supplies and technology, can drive curiosity and develop skills while fostering responsibility. Furthermore, a flexible learning environment will often present clearly marked pathways to activity areas in order to improve the utilization of space and performance metrics. This makes for an effective and streamlined learning process, aiding students to not only explore but also keep on task.

At SAS, the Center of Innovation houses flexible design areas, a prototype STEM lab, individualized makerspaces, meeting areas, and quiet spaces. The environment encourages students to explore, ideate, innovate, prototype, and often, learn from failure.

  • flexible learning environments
  • learning communities
  • learning spaces
  • Personalized Learning and Facilities



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