by Julie Kallio
Walk into a personalized learning school in southeastern Wisconsin, and I bet the first thing you’ll do is tour their space and hear about how they changed it. At several points during the visit, they’ll bring it up again, telling the story of how decisions were made, how they funded it, how they negotiated with maintenance or leadership. In my three years of studying personalized learning, the first conversations with students and teachers have always been about their space: where they like to learn, why they created the spaces they did, how they did it, and what they’d like to do next. From there, the discussion might move on to schedules, competency-based progressions, student interests, etc., but talking about the physical spaces always came first.
Changing spaces can often be considered a “safe” first change. However, just changing classroom furniture does not automatically mean pedagogies will also change. This is probably the most common criticism of money spent on the redesign of physical spaces, and this can absolutely be the case. Changing the physical spaces alone is not a silver bullet to successful implementation of personalized learning. Having said that, I have a couple thoughts about why these personalized learning practitioners and students felt their spaces were important and why it is often one of the first things discussed.
First, it is easy to talk about. It is the first thing you see and it is a stark contrast from desks in a row. In this way, physical spaces become a concrete demonstration of change. Changing the space provides a way to show that teaching and learning is different here. Even without the observer knowing anything about standards or lesson plans, the space provides evidence that change is happening.
Second, physical spaces have an impact on how we feel, physically and mentally, and educators and students intuit this. A space that has been created intentionally communicates value for the activities that happen there and care for teachers and students’ bodies and minds. Flexible spaces, a common feature of personalized learning environments, allow students to have choices about where and how they learn, which also means they can adapt it to their own needs and preferences. To little bodies, the chance to snuggle into an oversized chair with their iPad allows them to relax, play, and learn.
Third, these spaces are functional because they are designed by the users. Students can create space to work in small groups on their own without having to rearrange heavy desks. When you want students to make audio or video recordings, a recording studio or quiet reading nook makes a big difference.
Fourth, it’s about power, on a couple levels. Teachers generally have more control over the physical spaces of their classroom than they might have over the curriculum. While they may not have a budget to buy new furniture, they likely do not have to ask permission to move desks around. I heard from a number of teachers who said that rearranging their classrooms was the first thing they did after visiting personalized learning schools. At the student level, these spaces give students control of over their own bodies. Much of traditional classrooms – assigned seats, bells to signal class transitions, walking in lines – are a method of physical control. And when teachers and student engage in participatory design of the learning spaces, the shared ownership over the space fundamentally shifts whose space it is and who that space is for.
Fifth, design is a creative process, and challenges what school “should” look like. Redesigning spaces is a fun challenge: trying to find the right arrangement of furniture, creating cozy reading nooks that students enjoy, or finding a fun lamp at a garage sale that fits next to the bean bag chair. The physicality of creating learning spaces provides an entry into the design process, because it is easy to get feedback from students. A new sofa, chair or painted mural is more noticeable than a new rubric. These new physical spaces challenge our dominant assumptions, which means that parents, visitors, and even other teachers may question why students need couches to learn when they should be sitting up straight and raising their hand. This then becomes an opportunity for communities to engage in a discussion as to why and how these physical spaces support personalized learning.
I have come to see redesigned physical spaces as a physical representation of the social reorganization that is happening in personalized learning schools. They are the “body language” of institutional values and, in these cases, the changes in values. The “built pedagogy” of personalized learning is one that is student-centered and emergent, built around the voices of the people, the users of the space, and that is what makes them important.
Images courtesy of Kate Sommerville
Julie Kallio is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research interests include design processes, professional community, organizational theory, social networks, and the design of physical learning spaces. Julie previously taught in outdoor education and independent schools for 9 years, leading technology integration, teaching science, and dorm parenting.