Flexible Physical Space Design

"The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences." Maria Montessori
  • a classroom is a place where students are taught.
  • a library is a place to research, read or study.
  • a lab is a place for hands-on learning activities.
  • a studio is a place where things or performances are created.

Flexible Physical Space Design embodies the pedagogical change from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning. A learner-centered environment starts within a constructivist school culture where students construct understanding by their own direct experiences and reflection upon previous knowledge, skills and values.

Here, the physical learning space itself plays a key role in students' mental and physical well-being and becomes embedded with a school’s overall social and emotional learning plans. Traditional learning spaces designed with a singular purpose are transformed to multi-purpose learning spaces. This transformation from 20th-century to 21st-century learning spaces uses a new lexicon to describe the metamorphosis from -

    1. Classroom to Learning Studio

    2. Library to Learning Commons

    3. Lab to Makerspace

    Listed above, the three most common learning spaces within any K-12 school now take on a more flexible function as all can become places for learning, collaboration, individual space and active movement contained within the same room. As classrooms and labs become more flexible, we start to look at the whole space (typically 960 sq. ft.) laid out with groupings of micro learning spaces and micro making spaces. In libraries, we typically have more area space to work with and can craft larger groupings of learning zones. Educators are empowered as interior designers to create a learning space that now includes a broader mix of hard and soft furniture made for school, office and work, hotel and restaurant, and home and living spaces. These spaces may also be equipped with a variety of making materials and technology tools appropriate to the age group of students.

    Twenty-first century learning spaces are crafted by school communities with the outcome to raise the level of student creativity by providing a social and emotional safe nest for all individuals to thrive within a face-to-face learning environment.

    The Learning Environment as an Evolving Process

    May 24, 2009. This is the first actualized "Learning Studio" that I (Doug McIntosh) ever saw in person. At that time, It was the only formal classroom of its kind (other than Montessori style Kindergartens) in my district. I know this because as an Ed Tech Resource Teacher, I had traveled to the 180 schools in the District and been in many K-12 classrooms over 30 years. On this day, I had to step outside from Pam Stahlak and her 4th grade students to collect my thoughts and contain my tears. Though a wall of tradition and procedures, Pam had created a beautiful, eclectic, cozy environment for her students made up of many micro learning spaces. I became inspired to the possibilities...

    Why do learning spaces need to change?
    • Today, most of our K-12 classrooms in the United States are pedagogically founded and physically furnished in the reflection of mid-late 20th century schools.
    • The learning environment needs to reflect the curriculum. As the United States slowly moves to more of a inquiry/project-based curriculum, the focus is shifting from a teacher mostly standing in front teaching, to teachers facilitating the learning process. 

    • We are moving from single subjects being taught at a specific time period, to integrated subjects designed through projects as students work together. This approach models the real world and much of our current world of work. 

    • Learning Studios, Learning Commons and Makerspaces are all designed to optimize a face-to-face learning environment. Here, learning is:
      1. active and manipulative,
      2. understanding is experienced through projects (in a meaningful context), 
      3. and, learning is social through real-time conversation and collaboration.
    Multipurpose formal and informal learning spaces
    • For a typical California K-12 classroom with a minimum requirement of 960 sq. ft., a learning studio morphs the same desks and chairs into an eclectic layout of furniture and technology. In effect, the 960 sq. ft. becomes a place of unique micro learning spaces. Think of each learning studio as an unique hybrid of a classroom, a studio and a Starbucks lounge. For most educators, this is an evolving process. I am one of many that predict a tipping point towards the learning studio type of learning environment for classrooms happening within the next decade and standard in 15-20 years.

    • In a learning studio, students do not have assigned seating as the room is setup with some furniture for sitting, some for standing, some for even laying out. It is a place where the physical space is designed to optimize personalized and collaborative work in a safe and nested environment.

    • Whole group instruction space - Just because the furniture is not all the same, it can be arranged so that the teacher can present direct instruction to the entire class. Educators and parents may worry about this at first until they see the teacher leading the whole class together. Yes, even testing can be done effectively in a learning studio environment.

    • Project/teaming spaces - This is where the furniture becomes a priority in classrooms in America. Furniture that is mobile and modular (like nesting tables and chairs with casters) allow a typical 5th grade class to transform from a workshop building paper airplanes to a square dance floor the next hour.

    • Study/social spaces - Students need small cozy nooks to read, study and socialize. Again, the furniture is critical as we introduce a variety of soft furniture, cushions and matting.

    • For a classroom, library or lab, micro learning spaces or zones create a micro peer community, one they can feel safe in and open to participate in a variety of activities within the same larger room. 
    Who is leading this change to Learning Studios, Learning Commons and Makerspaces?
    • Leading this transformation, one room at a time, are individual teachers who practice project-based learning, use technology and mix up how their class is physically set up on a regular basis. These teachers view physical space as a critical component for their students' well being and academic achievement. 

    • A Learning Studio, Learning Commons or Makerspace is an organic process, almost always created by a teacher or librarian in their personal teaching space. These are teachers who embrace how to teach and learn in the 21st century. I put my vision and passion here with these educators.
    The Table and Chair Caster as a Game Changer in Education 

    How could something so simple as caster wheels for desks, tables and chairs revolutionize current educational practices? Computer laptops/tablets and large interactive displays often are the first hardware items that come to mind when thinking of 21st century learning environments. If pedagogical foundations of project-based and collaborative learning are helping to shape progressive instructional strategies, then we should first look at replacing the dead-weight furniture that can't be easily moved around. Casters create furniture that students and teachers can easily move to form a variety of large and small group learning spaces. Crafting engaging learning environments start with a bunch of little plastic wheels!  

    In a word, MobiMod™ 

    help learning communities with physical space design as a process to replace  traditional fixed furniture in classrooms, libraries and labs with a variety of mobile and/or modular furniture and technology. I have coined a term to encapsulate such flexible learning environments and call it, MobiMod™.

    The MobiMod™ style of using casters with chairs and nesting flip tables combined with some cozy furniture is a natural progression once teachers fully experience inquiry-based and project-based models of learning. From these experiences with students, many teachers then want to redesign their room layout to optimize how they now teach.

    Having mobile/modular furniture within a project-based classroom changes how activities are set up and group behavior occurs for students. MobiMod™ is about student interactions, collaboration and movement. It physically alters the notion that learning best occurs while sitting in the same fixed spot everyday, listening to a teacher at the same front wall, teaching mostly in direct instruction mode. My consultation services strive to provide insight and strategies to educators working to optimize teaching and learning that helps create the pedagogical shift from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning.

    A Large Wave Coming:
    Transforming Classrooms, Libraries & Labs

    I'm part of growing movement challenges the mindset that classroom physical space like the carpet or floor is for only the very young. It is my mission here to begin to change that mindset by providing alternatives to traditional stand and deliver classroom layouts. Imagine applying Montessori methods with moving furniture and floor matting designed for teenagers, then you are starting to get the picture of MobiMod™ learning environments. 

    Also, think about StarbucksPaneraBarnes & Noble and other consumer gathering spaces as eclectic models for 21st century study spaces. K-12 libraries can learn something to emulate here from these smart companies that sell comfort as a place to multi-task while you consume their products. 

    Many American corporations have also transitioned from individual employees working in cubicles, to organized teams working in open collaborative spaces. In the last century, K-12 education modeled the factory-row workplace. We now just need to move American schools into this collaborative century and model our teaming-based workplaces.

    "Many people lean on technology to lead educational system change. I'm more encouraged by the growing movement to focus on crafting well-being into face-to-face learning environments as a catalyst for learning. Students today still need the human touch to guide their conversations and collaborations as they maturate in both physical and digital learning spaces."  

    As a Learning Spaces Consultant, I work with clients to design from the inside out of a school building. Often, we begin with targeting a ground-zero change agent (e.g, a teacher) along with a local champion of the change (e.g, an administrator). Then, we work with the change agents to transform their physical learning space- a classroom, library or lab of some type. 

    By first changing the physical space, we get everyone excited and it rocks the student's world in a very positive and motivating way. And through planning, we connect the constructivist learning and technology design elements. 

    In the 21st century, K-12 education has experienced a couple of large waves. First, the rise of technology in the classroom and second, national standards for the curriculum. Currently STEAM and the Maker Movement are creating quite a swell. However, there are many educators who now see another large wave forming, the transformation of the physical learning environment. I advocate that we take this wave and make it a top priority in our nation's schools. Infrastructure and moderization funding needs to include the inside furnishings of the buildings too. We need to start looking at student furniture being as important as wireless networks with tablet computers.

    So, let's create the biggest impact to children by transforming their physical space as the face-to-face learning space becomes an equal partner with technology to help drive an inquiry-based curriculum in this century. Think of learning environment as the spark that leads to greater understanding of what to learn and how to learn in the 21st century.

     Bean Bag Chairs

    Teaming or "Huddle" Tables

    Traditional Desks in Rows 

    Traditional Desks in Pods 

    Standing Desks 

     Low Table w/ Pillows

    Caster wheel 

     Rocking Chairs

    Couch w/ Casters 

     Mobile Whiteboards

    Gathering @ Starbucks 

    Tablet Chairs with Casters 

     Flip & Nest Tables

     Balance Ball Chair

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