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Characteristics of innovative learning spaces that you should know

Lynn Marentette, M.A., Sp.A., Learning Experience Designer, NUITEQ®

"If you can design the physical space, the social space, and the information space all together to enhance collaborative learning, then that whole milieu turns into a learning technology, and people just love working there, and they start learning with and from each other." – John Seely Brown

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Innovative learning spaces

Curriculum standards have changed over the past decade and now reflect what young people must know as they become adults in an increasingly complex and technological society. There is an emphasis on problem and project-based collaborative learning, in and outside of the classroom, along with a move towards student-centered and personalized learning. Traditional classrooms are poorly equipped to support these forms of learning experiences.

Creative educators are transforming their classrooms, and other areas of their schools, to create engaging and innovative learning spaces, even when budgets are limited. New schools around the world have been designed and built to support innovative ways of teaching and learning, with input from teachers, parents, and young people. These spaces support collaboration, communication, and creativity more effectively than traditional classrooms.

In this post, I’ll provide an overview of the characteristics of innovative learning spaces, in and outside the school setting, followed by an annotated list of resources for educators who are interested in transforming their classrooms and schools.

Learning centers

Learning centers, also known as learning stations, are commonly seen in preschool and elementary classrooms. The center-based approach is rooted in learner-centered pedagogy, where students take an active role in their learning. In elementary classrooms that have adopted the center-based approach for instruction, space is often designated for group work and projects.

In recent years, middle school and high school teachers have found that the center-based approach has benefits. In high schools that follow the 90-minute class schedule, the learning center approach can be an effective use of time and space. Teachers report that this approach makes it easier to conduct formative assessments and modify instruction as needed. They also report that center-based approach supports technology integration.

Not all learning centers are located within classroom walls. For example, schools have transformed computer labs, libraries, and outdoor spaces into flexible learning environments. These spaces often have multiple functions and serve multiple grade levels throughout the course of the day.

Characteristics of innovative learning centers and spaces

  • Flexible space that can be easily adjusted to meet support the learning activities
  • Allow for movement
  • Allow for various groupings
  • Allow for hands-on exploring, making, and building
  • Allow for curriculum integration, including the arts
  • Support social interaction and development
  • Support cognitive skills and development
  • Support the integration of technology
  • Provide opportunities for students to learn through examples

Learning spaces outside the school walls

Some schools have created innovative outdoor learning spaces for students that include gardens and mini-ecosystems designed for science learning. Students can put on performances in designated outdoor spaces. Even a playground can serve as a learning space!

Beyond the schoolyard, short walks can be transformed into in-depth learning experiences. Students in non-urban schools have easy access to fields, woodlands, or farms, where learning activities can take place. In urban settings, students have easy access to museums, businesses, and other points of interest. Mobile devices make it easy for students to gather data and capture images as they explore their out-of-school environments, and use this content for their group projects, presentations, or digital stories when they return to the classroom.

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5-Minute Film Festival: Classroom Makeover to Engage Learners, Amy Erin Borovoy, Edutopia, 7/29/16

This post features a playlist of short videos that highlight various ways teachers and schools have created creative, innovative learning classrooms and environments. The post also includes useful links to “how-to” resources about this topic.

7 Outstanding K-8 Flexible Classrooms, Stephen Merrill, Edutopia, */917

In this Edutopia post, Stephen Merrill shares pictures and stories about 7 classrooms and the teachers who have created flexible learning spaces for their students. Even though many schools do not have the budget that teachers need to transform their classrooms in this way, with donations, thrift-store finds, and support from family and friends, it can be done, as explained in the post.

Video: 10 Wooranna Park: The Third Teacher

This video provides an overview of the imaginative learning spaces at Wooranna Park School, where learning environments function as another “teacher”. Wooranna Park School is based on the Reggio Emilia approach developed in Italy during the 1940s, in which students take an active role in their learning. At Wooranna Park, educators believe that learning spaces should support social and cognitive experiences, and reflect the school’s pedagogical philosophy.

A Centers Approach to Learning, Dennis Dill, Box Breakout Blog, 8/13/15

In this post, a sixth grade Social Studies teacher shares his reflections on making the transition to teaching in a STEAM program based on learning centers. This post provides useful descriptions of different kinds of learning centers and how they can be set up.

Learning Centers in the Secondary Classroom, Ted Malefyt, Edutopia, 1/6/16

In this post, the author shares his experience making the transition to learning centers in his middle school classroom and provides practical tips for teachers interested making this change.

6 Tips for Supercharging your Learning Stations, Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar, Edutopia, 10/21/16

The author of this post is an assistant professor of writing with experience as a secondary level English teacher. She reflects about her transition from traditional teaching methods to using learning centers with her students and also provides useful tips.

Spruce Up Your Centers with Technology, Tony Vincent, Learning in Hand, 5/18/15

This post features a 20-minute “how-to” video that demonstrates a variety of ways teachers can integrate technology into learning centers, for students of different grade levels. The post also includes the transcript of the video along with informative visuals.

Why Finland is Embracing Open-Plan School Design, Feargus O’Sullivan, Citylab, 8/18/17

This article provides insight into ways new schools in Finland are using open-plan design. Unlike the open schools of the 1960’s and 70’s, the new designs minimize noise and distractions. New furniture designs support a wide range of flexible learning spaces, to accommodate different sorts of learning activities and groupings.

Learning Spaces Toolkit

“A resource for designing and sustaining technology-rich informal learning spaces”.

Makerspaces Encourage Students to Innovate and Build Critical Thinking Skills, Karen J. Bannan, EdTech Classroom, 10/1016

In this post, the author discusses the benefits of makerspaces in schools and gives examples of how several school districts were able to get theirs up and running. maker spaces do not have to be limited to one room in a school. They can be created within existing classrooms and serve as learning center.

ImaginOn Library

ImaginOn is an example a library full of spaces designed to support 21st-century learning. It is the main library for children and youth in Charlotte, North Carolina. It consists of the Spangler Library for children, The Loft for teens, and the Children’s Theater of Charlotte. The library is a destination for families as well as local school groups.

The library was designed to support a wide range of learning activities, with iPad stations, play areas, cozy places to read, and gathering spaces. ImaginOn’s Studio provides a range of digital tools that support digital storytelling, visual literacy, audio production, and video production. It is open for use by teens and families.

Osceola Mobile STEM Lab

The Osceola Mobile STEM lab is housed in a spacious Farber bus, fully equipped with computers, interactive touch-screen displays, and enough hands-on science gadgets and materials to keep students actively engaged during each learning session.

School Outfitters, LLC

School Outfitters is an example of a company that provides furniture and other items suitable for flexible learning spaces in classrooms and schools. The company’s website provides articles about 21st Century Learning, including information about learning strategies and learning spaces.

Outside the school walls

Natural Start Alliance

The Natural Start Alliance is an organization that supports the growth and development of nature-based preschoolers, where learning takes place outdoors.

Reading the Landscape: Early Literacy in the Outdoor Classroom, Joanna Wright, National Start Alliance, 11/16

This post provides information about ways outdoor schools can support early literacy skills. One strategy is journaling, where the students draw pictures and write about their experiences each day.

Further reading

Brooks, D. C. (2012). Space and consequences: The impact of different formal learning spaces on instructor and student behavior. Journal of Learning Spaces1(2).

In this study, the researchers looked at a traditional classroom and a technology-integrated active learning classroom and found that there was a positive impact on the instructor and student behavior as well as learning engagement.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change (Vol. 219). Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.

In this book, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown explore the pitfalls of traditional classrooms and provide support for innovative ways of teaching and learning and the need for flexible learning environments.