Designing learning spaces for students

Create open, flexible, engaging spaces for active student learning.

#ready2launch flexible classroomsThe beginning of the school year! Desks, mailboxes, coat hooks labeled. Books organized, materials in bins. This task is often overlooked and underestimated in terms of time. How can you create a welcoming, flexible and inspired space? Here are some tips and ideas.

Just get some help dragging those desks around, okay?

Why flexible learning spaces?

Well, the days of a sage on the stage are long over. We know that students learn best through active, social learning opportunities — especially middle grade students. And if the goal is to create a community that builds student leadership, independence, problem-solving and creativity, how the classroom is set up plays a crucial role.

Envision a space where students move to spaces that work for them.

Some prefer the floor, others groups of desks. Other students prefer to be tucked into a corner or at a more private space where they can feel secure or spread out.

flexible classrooms

Let students choose *how* they interact with non-standard classroom furniture. Sitting, lying down and even squatting are all valid choices at this school in Baltimore County.

Students gather at one space, then move to another for individual work. Their work is featured in the room, and the room is creative, comfortable and inspiring.

Set up the room with some creative spaces in place

Consider this your “rough draft” before you get student input. You can get some fabulous inspiration here.

Ask for student feedback and ideas in morning or class meetings

Create maps, lists, and ideas. Get it all down and see what you can make happen. Ask kids for help. They can bring in pillows, portable chairs, whatever they dream up and you think will fit in the space. This will immediately create ownership and investment.

Create spaces for research and independent work

Where will students choice read? Research? Work independently? Carve out some creative spaces for this. Bean bags and camping chairs are helpful to have in this stage. Teachers can assign students randomly each day to bean bags or portable chairs if you have more students who want to use them than you have available. I used popsicle sticks for this purpose each day.

Create spaces for collaborative work

Where will students meet in small groups? A large table?  A floor space? Design a few group spaces that will work for this purpose.

Create spaces to exhibit work

Where will you feature student work? Ongoing, and finished? Often every surface in my room was covered with projects that were in progress. Find the spaces you know will have work ongoing, and those spaces where you can feature finished work.

I know, you don’t have much space. Think creatively: use the walls, the ceiling, and the halls. Sometimes we would take over our collaborative space with project displays. These spaces can be interchangeable, depending on what is happening in your classroom.

Create unique, comfortable, spaces for different learning styles

Or, be open to developing these as needed. Often needs emerge during class. One student needs a space with minimal distraction, while another works best by the window or in groups. Use furniture, cloth, bean bags, and to create spaces that support students as needs arise. The special educator can often be a co-creator for these types of spaces. And always ask the student! What would work for you?

Design a space for students to be physical

I know, there is not much room for this. But have an idea, where can students go who need a physical break or to move around? Is there a space in the classroom for a quick break, such as a yoga mat, a place to do Go Noodle (love this movement break website!), or an errand a student can run for a break? Think about these spaces before the school year so when it comes up you are ready.

Laura Botte, a middle grades math educator at Edmunds Middle School works hard with teaching partner Katie Wyndorf at maximizing the ways their students can integrate physical movement into their learning. Check out some of Botte’s design experiments, below.

Frequently check in with students

How is this space working and not working for our needs? What are your suggestions? The best ideas always seem to come from students. Be open to their feedback and try ideas  you think will probably not work, because they just might surprise you! And in doing so, they will know you are serious about student leadership and voice in the classroom.

What are your ideas for creating flexible, open spaces for student learning and living?

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Katy Farber

Farber joined TIIE after 17 years as a classroom teacher in central Vermont. Her dissertation with Northeastern University focused on service learning at the middle level and is called The Doing Revolution: early adolescents, service learning, and personal growth. Her education articles have been published on CNN’s School of Thought, Educational Leadership, Edutopia, and the Synapse. Farber has also taught pre-service and practicing teachers in graduate courses at Union Institute and LAPDA. She is passionate about promoting student and teacher voice, engaging early adolescent students, sharing the power of service learning, and creating inclusive communities where joy, courageous conversations and kindness are the norm. She lives in central Vermont with her husband and two daughters and loves being outside with family and friends, listening to music, and jumping into Vermont ponds and lakes.

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