Pedagogy and People over Places and Spaces

The impact of flexible learning spaces on student learning and achievement in a school-based setting;

A snapshot of the discourse



Studies about student academic achievement and building condition conclude that the quality of the physical environment significantly affects student achievement. ‘There is sufficient research to state without equivocation that the building in which students spends a good deal of their time learning does in fact influence how well they learn’ (VIT 2009 p1). Forward-thinking educators are suggesting that the reform of learning spaces is over. It’s time for transformation, to rethink technology and media, pedagogy, and the physical environment.

As evidenced by the varied and detailed body of research and professional discussion via means such as Twitter, society has a more positive and democratic view of children as capable, responsible individuals. The core of this lies in the fact that we have a greater depth of understanding of how children learn and we don’t believe that all students learn best sitting behind a desk listening to a teacher. There is more widespread interest in problem based learning (PBL) and pedagogies with focus on problem solving, creativity and communication; These primarily being collaboarative and constructivist theories of education. These are important considerations for designers of learning spaces.

Although the vast majority of learning environments in an average school remains the same as 50 years ago, we have reached a tipping point, particularly in the last three years (according to David Cummings[1]) as we have reached a point where this has changed, the catalyst being digital technology. As schools, students and education move away from a didactic approach to e-learning and ’technology’, these ’e-spaces’  serve to highlight the student-driven, flexible learning that can be the focus of learning into the future. I am reluctant to utilise the term ’21st Century’ in this paper, as I feel that not only are we 10 years into this timeframe, but it also limits the scope of the discussion of the future of learning. I strongly believe we also need to not only be too future focussed, but on learning, now.

So it is a shift in the technological landscape , the sociological landscape and the architectural landscape that have seemingly connected to push a shift in the educational landscape, although these factors could be placed on a continuum to all push change within each other. Nevertheless, it is these four facets of society that were strong pillars in the literature and discourse.

Methodological approaches

A broad variety of methodologies, both qualitative and qualitative have been explored, to mirror the variety of approaches to the discourse around this topic. This paper in its tone and essence reflects that. I have read widely and sourced ideas from a great many places to shape my own discourse around the subject of spaces for learning. I have leveraged an extensive network on Twitter to gather the scope of reference for the topic, as well as a range of resources to review. Social media is important in an area of educational development such as learning space and pedagogy, as many practitioners and experts, such as Ewan McIntosh[2], David Cummings, Stephen Heppell[3],
Tom Barrett[4] and Fiona Young[5] share experience and expertise via personal discussion, blogs and outlets including Twitter and YouTube. Much of the investigation has been personally rich in the gathering of data and ideas, and I have enjoyed being consultative with experts and colleagues. This is also true of the annotated bibliography, which has been completed using Diigo. I have been able to share this collection of research with other practitioners, and I look forward to continuing my online bookmarking as my interest in this field continues to grow. As this is by no means an extensive review of the literature, and in my research journey, I have encountered several reviews of the literature associated with this topic. Therefore, I have taken the direction to showcase the best examples of research and discourse around the topic, and evaluate areas needed for further investigation. In this way, it has become a personal learning journey of which I have actioned in my own classroom setting and professional conversations.

Key concepts I have aimed toexplore:

This snapshot of the discourse aims to explore the research and conversation around practices that have been adopted by schools and teachers to improve student learning outcomes and achievement. There is a strong link with best pedagogy and leading practice which refers to proven, sustainable and adaptable practice leading to improved outcomes, validated by research.

  1. The Environment has a physiological impact on learning. For example, students with limited classroom daylight are outperformed by those with the most natural light by 20% in maths and 26% on reading tests. (The Third Teacher, pg 27)
  2. Form need to follow function; Teaching and learning should shape the  building, not the other way around.- Dieter Rams, The Third Teacher, pg69
  3. Significance of incidental learning- making school infrastructure transparent brings about a community sense, and teaches young people the workings of the real world.
  4. Technology connects learners with each other, information and the outside world. Connectivity, makes learning visible and meaningful. The importance of connectivity cannot be underestimated, as it shapes where learners will position themselves and how flexible they will make themselves.


Scope of the review

The most central piece of literature to the review is the 2010 Collaborative project; The Third Teacher, which looks to form a framework of concepts for design to transform teaching and learning. This book lends on some arts-based methodologies, incorporating quotes, observations, photographs and a companion website. It has pointed me towards other avenues of investigation, most successfully a personal conversation around spaces as a global connector of learners with Prof Stephen Heppell. As organisations such as CEFPI (Council of Educational Facilities Planners International) continue to deliver contemporary research in my field of investigation, and more contacts are made globally through my extensive Twitter network join my discourse around Learning Spaces and Student Achievement, I have seen the need to cap the scope of the research. Since much of the research development has been born of personal conversations with educators teaching in innovative spaces, and my own anecdotal observations from teaching in Sydney’s newest architecturally designed future focused learning space at Ravenswood School for Girls, and as a student in Macquarie University’s Library space, I have further made the choice to limit the research to literature produced in the past 10 years. I have also limited the literature to English language references.

 “The child
starting kindergarten this year will graduate in the third decade of the 21st
Century. All we know about the world she will step into this that it will have challenges
and opportunities beyond what we can imagine today, problems and possibilities
that will require creativity and ingenuity, responsibility and compassion.
Whether this year’s kindergarten student will merely survive or positively
thrive in the decades to come depends in large measure on the experiences she
has at school. Those experiences will be shaped by adults, by peers, and
ultimately by places; by the physical environments where she does her learning.”-
(The Third Teacher)

Research and actioning of the relationship between the educational and architectural design features and principles when planning new learning environments for increased student engagement and achievement has escalated in the last five years, particularly in the Australian educational setting. The Federal Government’s Education Revolution, although an important exercise in resourcing schools, placed schools under an incredibly tight deadline for essentially spending the money allocated.  While a great majority of schools were resourced with new buildings, the much needed discussion around the associated pedagogies and achievement strategies were lacking. Ewan McIntosh and David Cummings agree, Spaces need to the thoughtfully engineered for learning, and it is good practice, not good buildings that lead to improved learning experiences. In fact, anecdotal observations[i] strongly suggest that even the most grand on building design will not transform teacher practice and learning in any measurable way if reflection and discussion around pedagogy does not occur. Conversely, the Victorian Department of Education and Training, which according to the literature is leading the way in thoughtful school design in Australia (Fisher, 2005) conducted a study examining pedagogy-space performance measures. This preceded a major injection of capital investment into school infrastructure for K-12 schools delivered through the Leading Schools Fund (LSF). This concept was designed to pilot innovative pedagogies across 80 schools. Schools had to ‘bid’ for funding based on pedagogical, curriculum, professional development, technology and learning environment design strategies. The study developed planning and design principles to assist facility managers, school councils, principals, teachers and architects to design new learning environments for new or best pedagogies. These planning and design guidelines were based on international and national case studies and required an evidence-based business case for Treasury to approve the financial strategy prior to implementation (Fisher 2005 p5). This points not only to the significance of research, discourse and intent around provision of buildings for purposeful learning, but also the need to work together as a local, national and international community of learners and consultants. Globally, it has been shown that visits by staff to other institutions that are in the same thought/building process have proved beneficial in supporting change. Organisation such as SCIL[6] make sharing this research and their experience a two-way Professional Learning experience, sending staff to a range of benchmark locations around the world, and inviting practitioners and researchers into their space. Written Research surrounding this practice, is however limited.

The old adage “If you build it, they will come” is not living in schools. These discussions, even post building or fit-out are critical for the longevity of the success of the organisation and its stakeholders.  Education and school buildings have a resource (human, environmental and fiscal) need to be durable and aesthetically pleasing, but they also need to be functional and fit for purpose. This is critical for the sustainability of often limited resources available systematically. Some of these resources to keep in mind are financial, human, and physical space.

Nevertheless, there is a rise in the provision of flexible and innovative spaces for learning in school-based setting across the world, and in Australia. This trend is underpinned by an emerging body of unique research; which still remains seemingly anecdotal in its basis. This can lead to a significant opportunity for practice to inform evidence at a tertiary research level. The available and most contemporary research, associated focuses on the way in which schools have used resources for time, space and information communication technologies (ICT) to change teacher practice, and increase student engagement and achievement. There is a strong discourse, albeit informal, that I have engaged in around the ability to employ best practice existing pedagogies and evolve them into new directions in teaching and
learning informed by the potential of flexible learning spaces currently operating in NSW and international schools. This discourse has served to inform the literature I have started to engage with in the area of learning and contemporary space.

There is a critical need to look at ways of designing inspiring learning/school buildings that can adapt to educational and technological change. ICT is a vital component and can give schools the option of teaching children as individuals, in small groups and in large groups, and can should facilitate connections with other schools, facilities and experts locally and from around the world. This is equally as important for students and teachers to instill a community of learning. That will not happen if design spaces in schools are not flexible and facilitate various patterns of group dynamics and learning styles. Flexibility is paramount, because whatever vision of education buildings are designed around, they will need to perform in a very different way in a few years’ time; this is at the core of the success of the space- sustainability.

A rigid posture is
manageable for a short time, a
an excessively static posture leads to mental and physical impairment due to
oxygen supply causing what is often called ‘the school headache’
– pg 79 The
Third Teacher

Well-designed learning spaces have a motivational effect. Learning areas infused with natural light provide an environment that is easy and pleasurable to work in. Wireless connectivity within a brightly lit atrium, learning café or open-plan social area will encourage engagement in learning, and instil a desire to continue activities beyond timetabled classes.  The majority of the research encountered was based in the tertiary setting. The higher education sector in Australia has recognised that the physical learning environment has a significant impact upon learning and the student university experience. Although academic excellence has long been seen as the drawcard for universities, the focus is now shifting to include the physical elements on offer, and new learning spaces are a major player in attracting and retaining student interest (Radcliffe et al 2008 p11). This notion however can be easily transferred into the secondary school setting and is in-fact evident in the marketing material of many schools, advertising their physical spaces as drawcards for enrolment.

Space is motivating and warm environments assist educators to conduct the activities of teaching and learning.  Students are more interactive in welcoming, where students can manage and shape their own working area. Students reflect on the interactive and connected capabilities of well-designed space both within the classroom community and beyond the realms of the physical space. This is a significant theme in the literature encountered; the ability of the space to work outside of itself. The teacher and students both recognise that reconfigurable learning spaces engage different kinds of learners and teachers, as evidenced by Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. Class spaces need to be agile. In the case of secondary schools, new facilities excite the interest of students. Our librarians at Ravenswood School for Girls reviewed the mandatory sign in records from the old library to the new LRC space, noting not only an increase in the time students on average spend in the new space,
but the increase in the number of students who had not previously stayed at school after hours. There is undeniably a close correlation between the quality of the facilities and a sense that education is important, and that students are being valued by the organisation.  When observing and operating in my current school over the past 24 months, it can be seen that the adverse effect of building disruption on morale has been vastly outweighed by the pride in the new facilities of the school community and in some examples (particularly personally) the effect this has had on the ability to deliver a programme of teaching in a style considered to be contemporary and meaningful. Fisher (2005, p4) suggests the common finding to be that new buildings allows staff to change the way in which subjects are taught.
While there is certainly greater opportunity for change in pedagogical approach, Cummings argues this is rarely translated without seriously reflection, discourse and time allowances.


“Spaces should add value to learning and act as a teaching assistant to learning activities. School buildings need to be viewed as influencers of future practice, not responsive to existing practice of teaching and learning.”- Ewan McIntosh. However, most discussion is suggesting, interestingly, that a range of outstanding architectural buildings have been designed and delivered to schools around Australia and the world, but the true potential in terms of their ability to act as a third teacher is underutilised in real terms, and in this way, there appears to be a clear disconnect between literature and practice, which the scope of this investigation will continue to unpack further[ii]. The review continues to reveals gaps in the research, in that most research on learning spaces focuses on the design phase, rather than on the later phases or on the people that use the space – practitioners and learners. A discussion with David Cummings on this subject revealed an important concept; it is not architecture that liberates learning, it is practise. This argument is well articulated by the leader in the field of this work, Ewan McIntosh;

“We’ve been making this point about new buildings: they do not, in themselves, change anything. We’re working round on changing ideas and notions around teaching and learning first, so that the students’ and teachers’ capacity for ‘suspending belief’ around what a building should be can be harnessed by the architects. However, what’s also useful is undertaking the same design thinking process with an existing building to see what opportunities are / are not being explored, everything from timetabling changes to small (but important) changes in teaching and learning approaches.” Ewan McIntosh on ‘Spaces to Learn, Learning about Spaces’


From all of the reading and discussion, this has been the most critical and salient point. The first consideration when planning how to use the learning space in the classroom is to have a clear idea what the purpose of each learning activity is going to be.  Fisher (2005 p 1) opens the research by noting that the evaluation of school learning environments has for decades traditionally focused on the technical performance of the facilities with little attention being paid to their pedagogical performance or
effectiveness. This is highly problematic and has been discussed previously.  I echo Fisher’s point, suggesting that although there are a number of studies which explore the links between pedagogy and the design of the learning environment, these are worth examining in more depth including thinking closely about problem-based learning.

The prevailing pedagogic approach has swung towards active and collaborative learning, but even in the most contemporary spaces, room design and staff skills sets do not always reflect this. Agility it the key, and certainly time and energy spent in defining the strategic teaching and learning directions of organisations prior to building or retro-fitting spaces. To determine the best way forward for the organisation, effective dialogues are needed to establish what will be required from the spaces, what changes in pedagogic approach are needed. Investment in developing the skills of staff also needs to be matched by fostering their ownership of the proposed changes. Involving learners (both students and teachers) in aspects of the design is important. This signals that they can have a measure of control over the learning environment and over their own learning. Creativity often comes with ownership, and it is in the ownership of the conversations that true utilisation of spaces, matched with pedagogy and ultimately resulting in improved student outcomes and learning.

Well-designed learning spaces are also in essence social spaces and are likely to increase students’ motivation and may even have an impact on ability to learn. High-quality space for informal learning enhances the profile of the organisation. Research further indicates that classroom climate is determined by the organisation of learning space, learner involvement, in collaborative and autonomous learning which simultaneously assists in developing a sense of belonging and community. This culture of trust, respect and ownership leads to more respect for the appearance and mainatainence of the learning environment itself. The climate of a classroom can foster resilience or become a risk factor in the lives of people who work or learn in a place called school (Chrisenduth, 2006 p5).

The motivation of learners is the ultimate end product. Achieving spaces that foster effective learning will require a holistic approach, including a dialogue with all key stakeholders. A cross-institutional management group is at the core of the success of the space in serving a function towards student achievement and strong learning outcomes. Furthermore, this promotes a strong sense of community, able to be enriched and enhanced in the collective and collaborating nature of the spaces in which are under management. Most importantly, as evidenced by a range of conversations as literature, (current topical discourse), is a new and purposeful vision for learning and teaching and learning space design which requires a strong narrative of the organisation and collaboration with consultants to articulate its aims and oversee its functioning
and development. This clearly needs to be an ongoing process. In conversation with BVN Architect and CEFPI Chair, Fiona Young, and echoed by the sentiments of Ewan McIntosh, crucially, the views of learners should also underpin the development of strategies for teaching and learning, and learning space design and functioning. In this consultation, a learning community is strengthened (or formed) and clearly, designs of physical spaces are linked to the institution’s strategic vision for teaching and learning, and that this is articulated in every detail of the design and shared with all stakeholders, at the apex; learners. What emerges is a set of clear technical recommendations on the best ways of improving the learning landscape in different learning settings, as guided by pedagogy.


In conclusion…

The most salient of the findings and research around this topic came from discussions with networks of teachers, researchers and architects immersed in finding new ways to utilise their new spaces, researching future spaces for their organisations or currently working in the field. Much of the evidence, while sound and useful is largely anecdotal.  Further data-driven research is needed on the uses of spaces in supporting learning and achievement, and how they may be most effectively provided in the secondary educational setting. The role that space plays in the dynamics of creating productive education, in most contexts and communities is not well understood, and needs further study. A methodological study should be carried out to consider how the effects of space on learning may be rigorously evaluated; this is certainly the element of any discourse around the topic that is lacking significantly. Efforts should be made to conduct evaluations andaction-research in the learning context that provide guidance is to the learning benefits, and the financial and other costs, of emerging, and contemporary learning spaces. Teacher Professional Development in utilising
space as an important factor in the learning continuum is virtually non-existent. This is problematic in my view. It may be loosely disguised as ‘classroom management’ however we find that the majority of pre-service teachers entering schools have little understanding of the environment as the third teacher, and are even reluctant to shift the layout of learning spaces to match their desired pedagogies. This phenomenon alone warrants further research and examination.  Sustainability and ‘future proofing’ of contemporary learning spaces can best be achieved by providing comfortable, welcoming spaces that can be adjusted and adapted to a range of learning situations, as informed by latest pedagogical trends and research.

In examining the literature in this area it can be said that there is insufficient qualitative/deep research on the relationship between pedagogy and design of learning environments. The OECD recommends that research should follow five key steps:

1. What student abilities do we want to achieve?

2. How can we assess these attributes?

3. What pedagogies should be used to achieve these desired learning outcomes?

4.What learning environments should be developed to fit these pedagogies?

5.How can we develop a pilot program and evaluate it?

Furthermore any such research needs to be developed with classroom teachers to ensure its relevance to learning and central focus on building positive learning communities.

I welcome your thoughts.


Summer Howarth

I'm driven by student engagement, by working with people who are invested in a notion that we need to work together to shape an education worth having for all young people. I am on fire with ideas; shaped by the people I've met and work with, the possibility of education and a future of what the teaching profession could be. I am deeply passionate in advocacy for Middle Schooling and young people, directing my energies to causes promoting the efficacy of the teaching profession through strengthening the experiences of learners; influencing students and student teachers. When I am able to personally connect with people from my online Professional Learning Network (PLN) I am further inspired to learn more, think widely and dream up better things for students. Currently working with teachers and stakeholder from across Australia and colleagues at The Innovation Unit on Learning Frontiers. #lovingit. Continue the conversation on Twitter; @EduSum


  1. Well done what a great post! Highly informative!I absolutely loved the quotes! My favourite was the one that starts off with “The child starting Kindergarten this year…. Keep up the wonderful work Summer!

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