Spaces to Learn…Learning about Spaces

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


Statement of the scope of the

“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. 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 practise 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 practise 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.


What will
be covered in the Literature review?


This literature review aims to explore the research and discourse 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.

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.

Key concepts I will aim to explore:

  1. 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. Laptops and handheld devices personalise learning and contribute to the flexibility of spaces provided.  Connectivity (to internet and power), 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.


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 instil 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.


As previously discussed, a range of methodologies, both qualitative and qualitative will be reviewed, to
mirror the variety of approached to the discourse around this topic.  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 andexperts, such as Ewan McIntosh share experience and expertise via blogs and
outlets including Twitter and YouTube. Much of the investigation has and will continue
to be consultative with experts and colleagues.

Video evidence:

Creativity and time I was looking further afield into achievement and creativity. In the spirit
of the quote below, I explored the notion of play further:

Play is fundamental for
wellbeing, memory development and core learning”
.- Stuart L Brown M.D, President of the National Institute for Play

Although I won’t utilise this specifically in the final review, it has shaped my thinking around the topic development, particularly when partnered with this notion, which I do intend on fleshing out further:

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

Anarchy In Learning Steve Collis from Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning explores the activity, and ultimately the learning occurring in the multi-user, Problem-based learning space at Northern Beaches Christian School. This video caught the attention of a broad range of educators at the recent Teaching and Learning with Vision Conference, including Professor Stephen Heppell. Many discussed the notion of the buzz and activity as contributing to the understanding that learning was occurring, and the accountability of the peer dynamics contributing to achievement and a ‘value add’ to the student, the space as the enabler. The progress of the discussion of this project will be discussed in the final review.

Learning Shifts as Aston Business School Odette Hutchinson from Aston Business School discusses flexible and responsive teaching. This is one of the best examples highlighting the anecdotal evidence around improved student outcomes when spaces are designed with pedagogical intent. Hutchinson discusses the new space as motivating and warm environments to conduct the activities of teaching
learning. She observes that students are more interactive and highlights the importance of the ease of interruptions for didactic information interjection. Students reflect on the interactive and connected capabilities of the 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. Classrooms need to be agile.

Seven Spaces of LearningEwan McIntosh. This is a significant piece of literature, as it is data and evidence driven, with practise and observations underpinning the investigation. I will continue the
conversations with Ewan McIntosh throughout the literature review process.

I hope to find that overall the literature points
to this core concept…

“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 allows to be unpacked further.