Learning Space vs. Learning Environment

Learning Space vs. Learning Environment

My science classroom space has changed dramatically over the last five years as I embraced an innovator’s mindset and shifted our classroom learning environment from a teacher centered space where I dictated the course of our learning path including destination points to a student-centered space where students chart their own learning journeys under the umbrella of our science learning objectives with guidance from me.  As I embarked on this change in course, our traditional classroom space began to feel stifling and confining.

Two summers ago, I decided to drastically change our learning space.  I ravaged garage sales and thrift stores and kept a careful eye out for free roadside pickups.  When my students entered our classroom that August, it no longer looked like a typical science classroom.  In fact, it didn’t look like any learning space that most of them had ever encountered before.   Unexpectedly, the students walked in and just looked around, nobody sat down.  They all looked at me as if they were waiting for permission, which it turns out they were.  I invited them to find a seat wherever they felt comfortable and our year began.

I had removed most of the big, cumbersome science lab tables that filled the room before, replacing them with low and high tables.  Many of our ugly, painfully uncomfortable (how can student learners sit in these things for 7 hours every day?) “school” plastic chairs were replaced with a variety of seating choices, high seats, low stools, floor pillows, a couch.  Teachers and students both started to call it the “Starbuck’s café” of the school.  Our transformed learning space encouraged collaboration and creativity.  Students started coming to class early because they felt safe, comfortable and wanted in our learning space.

We made sense of science in this learning space for the next two years, diving into problem-based learning and design thinking.  My students and I loved the flexibility our learning space offered.  We loved being able to rearrange the room to create small group areas for teams to work on their most recent design challenges.  Visitors to our learning space often commented on how welcome they felt upon entering our space.  The depth of thinking my students were engaging in was different.  They were creative, problem focused thinkers.  Considering the impact these changes to the learning space had on the learning that was occurring, I strongly believed the learning space itself was the impetus for the changes I was observing.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to accept a position at another school.  It was a change I needed in my professional and personal life.  The kicker, though, was if I accepted the position, I wouldn’t have my own classroom anymore.  In fact, I would be moving four times throughout the day to three different, very traditional classrooms that I would share with other teachers.  Hmmm…. I thought, learning space is important, it is one of the reasons why I believed my students were so successful.  Always up for a challenge, I decided I would make it work.

I moved around a lot last year (and gained firsthand knowledge of what students feel like throughout their school day).  I packed up all of my classroom furniture and made space for it in the corner of my basement, hoping that I would be able to pull it out again sooner rather than later.  I consolidated fifteen years’ worth of materials, supplies, etc. down to five boxes and I walked into the three very traditional classrooms that I would be teaching science within, two science labs and one math classroom.

As my students and I moved through this year, I started to realize something important.  Not having the learning space that I envisioned was frustrating but it didn’t mean the innovative learning that I had seen the prior two years had to stop.  While we weren’t in what I consider an ideal learning space, at the end of the day, what really mattered was the learning environment, not the learning space.  Deep, innovative learning can happen anywhere.   I didn’t need comfy chairs and choice to create a learning environment where students are comfortable asking deep, thoughtful, hard questions.  I didn’t need flexible seating choices to create a learning environment where student teams are comfortable thinking big and broad, taking risks and failing fast and often.  I didn’t need a space that was easily manipulated and reorganized to create a learning environment where deep thinking and learning was the norm.  Over the course of this year, I realized the importance of the learning environment.  Learning environment, not learning space, cultivates learners.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am still a strong advocate for flexible learning spaces that encourage collaboration, creativity, problem solving and deep thinking.  In fact, when the opportunity arose to move into my own classroom for the upcoming year, I leapt at the chance.  I just believe that the learning space does not need to dictate the learning environment.  So, next week I will pull my flexible seating out of storage.  My students and I will determine how to organize our learning space and create a place where they can put on their best question asking and problem solving hats and get down to the business of deep, hard thinking and learning.  But I will remember that the learning space isn’t nearly as important as the learning environment.  We will create a welcoming environment where student learners feel safe and supported.  We will create a learning environment where student learners think about real problems and issues as they use their science understandings and learnings to tackle these problems.  We will create a collaborative environment that acknowledges the strengths and contributions of every learner, that respects differences in opinions and that honors learner feedback.   Learning spaces are important but, it is the learning environment, created by the learners that occupy it, that cultivates and nurtures deep, positive change.    

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