Innovative learning environments for 21C objectives

Innovative learning environments (ILE) may have seemed like fad for a while there, but schools are getting results from loosening and dynamising their learning spaces to support true 21st century learning.

Sir Ken Robinson famously said, “If you sit kids down day after day indoors at desks, doing what often amounts to low-grade clerical work, then don’t be surprised if they fidget, don’t achieve a great deal, and don’t feel very good about themselves.”

While the outcomes of reading writing and arithmetic must still be taught, we don’t need rows of desks, and actually, we don’t even need sit down to achieve it.

Rows of desks are becoming a thing of the past. Photo: Resource Furniture

Last October, an innovative learning makeover at Coatesville Primary School in East Bentleigh, Victoria was featured on Channel 9. The school is one of 6000 schools across Australia and New Zealand to have taken part in a study conducted by the University of Melbourne to illustrate the benefits of creating ILEs in schools. Project head, Associate Professor Wesley Imms, who describes traditional classroom as ‘cells’ says their research has produced some promising results about the benefits of ILEs for student learning. 

While students were predictably impressed with “movable walls and cushions in place of desks”, the school’s principal, Louise Pearce was adamant that the learning outcomes had far from suffered, and stakeholder satisfaction was at an all-time high. “We haven’t thrown out literacy, we haven’t thrown out numeracy, we still teach the three Rs; we just teach it differently,” she said.  One teacher in the short segment said, we don’t want our students to be passengers in the new world we want our students to be leading that new world”.

Tech developments allow schools to ‘beam in an expert’ for specialisations. Photo: Resource Furniture

If we want graduates who have developed skills in collaborative projects, have an ease with communication, and are practised in thinking creatively, we can’t rely on traditional pedagogy. If we want adaptability and creativity as key attributes, we need activities that promote the development and/or preservation of these qualities. The good news? ILE proponents are resolute that these spaces are designed to support exactly these aims, and schools are taking note. While a total overhaul might not be possible, a few adjustments to current furnishings can go a long way in supporting learning activities associated with collaborative, creative problem-solving education. 

For a clearer understanding on how to design an ILE, we called on Resource Furniture director, Scott Reed, for some industry insight.

Industry view

Mr Reed says it’s vital that schools engage in adequate planning prior to establishing an ILE. “From a design point of view, it is crucial that schools provide as much information as possible. A design brief should be developed that outlines how they would like the space to work for both students and teachers, as well as the teaching style they would like to implement.”

“From there, we start to space plan with suitable furniture and consideration to learning styles, acoustics and even the flow of foot traffic throughout the space,” he advised.

Collaboration is a 21st century skill – learning environments should support it. Photo: Resource Furniture

A common criticism of modernised learning spaces is that open plan areas lead to ‘cross-disturbance’ from diverse activities, especially when the pace and exuberance of activities are ill-matched.

While early ‘modern learning space’ initiatives in the 70s and 80s may have felt like learning at a subway station, innovations in acoustics, and clever furniture design have the power to turn a noisy ‘mess hall’ ambience into a beehive of specialised activity spaces.

How can ILE design accommodate diverse learning activities occurring in the same space and time? Mr Reed says simultaneous learning activities can be facilitated through furniture designed with inbuilt visual and aural buffers.

“Collaborative learning pockets in open learning spaces are best treated with low-walled booth systems,” he suggested. “In-built acoustic panels that surround the working area help to drastically reduce noise and provide privacy for small group collaborative work.”

He says for best results in ILEs, the layout should encourage a range of learning styles that are flexible, encourage collaboration and adapt with changing technology.  “For example, research has shown that combining a mix of flexible desking options and breakout soft seating is effective, because it allows classes to adapt their layout to accommodate both a lecture-style configuration and a group collaboration layout. As such, desks that nest together to form interesting and functional work spaces, yet also pull apart to support individual work, are ideal.”

Another key feature of the ILE, especially for schools on a budget is the versatility factor. Mr Reed says offering a range of desk options coupled with soft seating is key.  “Also, including either height adjustable surfaces or fixed height options at both seated and bench height is also proving very popular.”

And who says learners need to sit down at all? Some children just prefer standing or wiggling or balancing. Some people have to move to think.  “Having the choice to sit a desk or stand at a large table to work collaboratively provides another element in facilitating a better learning experience.”

Libraries have featured heavily in education discourse of late, as literacy figures continue to suffer, and research into the link between school libraries and literacy supports their importance. A Softlink research project in 2010 “found a correlation between high NAPLAN literacy results and a well-resourced library”. The recurring theme however is that libraries must appeal to our ‘digital natives’ and incorporate technology into (but not replace) the existing physical resources.

Mr Reed says the provision of soft seating that includes power inputs is essential for this generation to adopt the library as a “social hub”. It’s likely a decent wifi connection will also assist in luring them to your house of letters.

Students these days are also used to having things displayed for them, as visual merchandising and constant internet marketing proliferates. Mr Reed says library shelving units “that present books in a more retail style of merchandising” can engage young people, and increase loan rates.

If we want to turn out people who are creative innovators with strong social skills, and the ability to adapt, we may have to ‘tear down the walls’ of these cells and start designing schools to look like the offices of our progressive industry players.

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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