This article was first published in Journeys Summer 2018. 

Does Space Really Matter?

As we strive to personalize and enhance the learning journey for each and every student, the significance of space supporting learning is slowly coming to light. We know that the success of any student is influenced by many variables. In recent months, one factor, in particular, has become a hot topic in student, faculty, and parent conversations around campus. It is the role of classroom design and more specifically, a flexible learning environment. So, what is a flexible learning environment, how does it differ from a traditional classroom, and most importantly, how can it promote the facilitation and adoption of personalized learning for teachers and students?

As we think back to our childhood classrooms, most of us can recall a very similar setting. Rows of neatly lined desks facing a large writing surface and an educator. The design of this traditional classroom leads to students sitting with compliance in identical chairs, absorbing instruction and content delivered by the teacher.

As the world around us continues to advance, change and shift, so too does education and the way in which we learn and teach. If teaching practices are evolving, and so are the standards, skills, and learning outcomes of students, is it time to consider the significance of learning spaces, and how they may mirror our ever-changing world?

In a technology-driven society with knowledge in everyone’s reach, the role of today’s teacher is no longer focused on content delivery alone. Educators equip their students with the essential skills to become successful and engaged citizens to face the challenges of an unmapped future. At Singapore American School, teachers are working hard to provide an exemplary educational experience for their students, empowering each to take ownership of their learning, developing skills for deeper learning, and creating strong connections with each other, teachers, and their community. As SAS endeavors in a promise to offer a personalized approach to all and offer voice and choice for every student, it is time to depart from a one-space-fits-all traditional classroom.

Flexible learning environments to support learning are already underway at SAS. A flexible learning environment is a space that is versatile and adaptable to allow multiple learning activities for diverse skill development to occur. Unlike a traditional classroom setting, the space is not fixed. It consists of agile and flexible furnishings, movable walls, varied seating options, and transparency between spaces. Flexibility in a flexible learning environment refers to staffing, allocation of time, and grouping of students, 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. According to advocates of flexible learning environments, these innovative spaces promote active learning and improve conceptual and applied forms of learning.

The current sixth grade A-side in middle school has two learning studios, a grand commons room, two smaller breakout rooms, and a science/maker studio. This space accommodates up to one-third of sixth grade. Undoubtedly, 106 children learning together in an open space sounds pretty terrifying! However, step inside the versatile environment of 6A and this concern is alleviated.

“When we choose to, we can gather 106 kids in this space and explain what the next project will be. As a large group, our students and teachers feed off of each others excitement and get hyped up for the next challenge,” says sixth grade science teacher Brendan Riley. “With enthusiasm and inspiration prevalent, it’s time for the project and learning to commence. We put the walls back up, and break out into smaller groups to start our activities.” Riley describes how the environment of 6A is responsive to the learning that is needed at a given time, indicating the design allows for a variety of activities and grouping formats. Sixth grade math teacher Kristoffer Munden further explains, “We can make the space fit what we need rather than the space dictating what we can do.”

The Connected Classroom

“The 6A environment allows for strong connections and team teaching which can contribute to successful implementation of personalized learning. There is a family atmosphere. Students are collaborating with students. Teachers with teachers. And teachers with students. Students see 6A teachers having lunch, recess, and meeting together daily. We do a lot of interdisciplinary learning in 6A and subjects become more easily connected through shared projects and themes. This environment alleviates isolation. Everything we do here is connected.”

Dynamic learning spaces like 6A are a reflection of the fast-paced and transient world around us, and in turn, align with our schools desired student learning outcomes. Transparency between spaces allows teachers to observe other teachers, learn and work with one another, and no longer teach in isolation. Students have further opportunity for collaboration, communication, and building stronger connections than they do in a traditional classroom. The flexible environment allows students to learn in many more ways and provides plentiful potential for each to take ownership in their day to day learning. Guided by teachers, students can choose a developmentally appropriate place to sit based on their learner profile and capacity to be their best learning self.

Quote from Hanover Research

So can these flexible environments support our growing vision and enhance student learning? Research suggests they contribute to higher engagement, the expectation of better grades, more motivation, and more creativity (Strickland and Kapitula, 2014). It is critical to ensure student engagement in learning experiences as it is explicitly associated with student achievement. Skinner and Pitzer (2012) explain that engagement is a robust predictor of student learning, grades, achievement test scores, retention, and graduation.

Without question, it is our educators that play a primary role in the drive of student performance and engagement. However, a connected environment that intentionally reflects the dynamic world beyond our school gate can certainly provide leverage for students at SAS to achieve their learning goals and accommodate for student-centered learning and for teachers to encourage voice and choice for every student.

Hanover Research, School Structures That Support 21st Century Learning (Washington, DC, 2011), 6; and Susan Black, “Achievement by Design” (American School Board Journal, October 2007), 39–41

Lennie Scott-Webber, Aileen Strickland, and Laura Ring Kapitula, “How Classroom Design Affects Student Engagement” (Steelcase Education, 2014).

Skinner, E.A. & Pitzer, J.R. (2012). Developmental dynamics of student engagement, coping, and everyday resilience. In S.L. Christenson, A.L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 21-44). New York, NY: Springer


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