Me? Obsessed?

I graduated high school in 1977. The English classrooms I see in 2009 are almost identical to the English classrooms I experienced in 1977. I started teaching biology in 1986 and my biology classroom then looks exactly like most biology classrooms do today. Don’t get me wrong- a great deal of outstanding teaching and learning can, and does, take place in such spaces.

Will I be able to say the same thing 20 years from now? Will the English and Biology classrooms of 2029 look exactly like the same classrooms from 2009?

It is my personal belief that they will, and that the notion of what a learning space looks like will not fundamentally change in mainstream K-12 education over that same time period. It is also my belief that the concept of learning space is one of the most neglected concepts of school design. Unlike some, I spend each and every day actually in a school, and I see teaching and learning jammed into a one-size-fits-all space that has the potential to constrict learning.

So I’m interested in something more. Something different, something better. Some might say I’m passionate about learning space, some may say obsessed. So, here is a quote that I posed the other day on Twitter, from Ryan Bretag:

“What are the dimensions of a learning space?”

If I were to ask you to identify a single word that describes a place for learning, you would probably say “classroom.” And that’s a great place to start, but unfortunately, that’s as far as most schools go. So when I think dimensions, I think of all possible spaces for learning, and all the types of learning that could potentially take place in those spaces. I use dimension in that context. To that end, in the school I work in, I’ll be focusing my passion for developing learning spaces on:

Flexible spaces that can be reconfigured to meet the need of the learners. One size fits all needs to go away. (Our library renovation will include a laptop lab with furniture that can be rearranged to align space with learning needs).

Non-traditional spaces, such as commons areas, where students can take advantage of their electronic devices and our open wireless network. (Our hallways, our Student Activities Center, our cafeterias can now have an additional dimension to what is available to learn with.)

Private student spaces where collaboration can occur, spaces for quiet reflection and collaboration. (Our library will contain two glass-enclosed conference rooms for students, complete with whiteboard wallpaper where kids can use the walls to diagram their ideas, their learning, and their passions.

Large open spaces in our library where kids and teachers can push and pull different resources to design their own space, given the immediate need. (Information commons, knowledge commons, what does a library in 2009 and beyond look like? Oh yes, it will still have….books.

Digital spaces where teachers can work, where students can interact, that support the physical space and extend it, to help students master the complex skills of connecting, creating, and learning in a digital context. (Our multidimensional learning space, with Moodle and Google Apps, and the focus on an entire digital school community, will provide students with support for a different type of learning experience).

Opportunities for the support of informal learning, that enable students to pursue their interests, their own learning, but within the context of the traditional learning space, i.e. schools and supported by adults. (Why limit learning? How can educators become mentors outside of the classroom context to help students explore their passions?)

So that’s why I’m passionate about learning space. And I don’t care if any or all of it has been done before, because it hasn’t been done enough….

Of course, this is all in support of a very successful and diverse school with multiple types of programs, services and opportunities for kids, a committed faculty and staff, excellent administrators and a supportive community-we’re very lucky. And we still have a wood shop, an automotive program, and we still offer film photography. Sort of old school, but old school can be good.

I’m not the only one interested in this of course. Consider the 2010 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in Denver. Their conference theme is Understanding Complex Ecologies in a Changing World and they have a list of suggestions for presentations, which include:

  • How educational settings—formal and informal—can be designed to address the interrelated cognitive, social, and emotional demands of learning;
  • How learning occurs within and across time and space in complex dynamic systems;
  • How alternative organizational spaces for education, such as for-profit schools, colleges, firms, community organizations, and museums interact with schooling in recruiting and expanding repertoires for learning.


If you are looking for an outstanding resource to get started, look no further than Educause’s excellent set of essays, appropriately entitled “Learning Spaces.”

Yeah, we will always have classrooms. I get it. But I would encourage you to think bigger, think beyond that typical space to take advantage of every opportunity for learning, and that includes a consideration of how space can impact learning, and what kinds of learning can take place in those spaces. I think that consideration is something that we dismiss too easily, it’s too much of an assumption that we don’t seriously reflect upon.

“Space can have a powerful impact on learning; we cannot overlook space in our attempts to accomplish goals” (Chism, 2006)

Chism, N. V. (2006). Educause. Retrieved July 8, 2009, from Learning Spaces: