Education Opinion

Habits and Habitats: Rethinking Learning Spaces for the 21st Century

By LeaderTalk Contributor — November 26, 2010 5 min read
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By Ryan Bretag | @ryanbretag

The moment students enter the classroom, the space informs them more than we can imagine about the type of learning the environment will foster and the clear direction the lead learner in the classroom wishes to go.

In many classrooms, the picture is all too familiar: desks in rows, a clear front of the classroom, podium off-center in the front, etc.. Does this image speak to the beliefs we state about 21st Century Learning? Are these spaces best capable of fostering the development of our vision for a well-educated global citizen? Have the spaces been intentionally designed in a way that supports learning and teaching?

Sadly, space design seems to have fallen into “do what we’ve always done” not what will best serve learning. But today, it is not enough to consider the habits we want and the teaching that will get us there. We must begin to provide the habitats that will support the creation and development of the desired habits.

Getting Started with Retinking Your Spaces

Developing the habitats that will foster the desired habits starts with an honest view of your current learning spaces against your vision of learning. In other words, what does it mean to be well-educated and how do our spaces support this vision?

To begin rethinking your spaces, consider going on a walk-about with three administrative team members, three students, and three teachers.

Your Tool Bag

  • Three Groups each consisting of one administrator, one teacher, and one student
  • Common Meeting Space for everyone
  • Mobile Learning Device (at least one per group): access to Google Doc Observation Form (shared amongst all on the walk-about) and ability to capture notes, video, photos, and audio into Evernote (or other software)
  • Physical Notebook for Each Group Member: sketches, hand-written notes, questions, opportunities/concerns, and positives

Steps (One Approach)

  1. Distribute reading materials on learning spaces. Recommendation: Learning Space Design, Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out, Third Teacher, and Apple Store Learning Environment
  2. As a group, review your learning (and teaching) vision, and what a graduate looks like upon leaving the learning community. Consider the following questions: what does it mean to be well-educated in today’s society (SHED: Skills, Habits, Experiences, and Dispositions), how does this inform teaching and learning, and what types of spaces will promote this desired teaching and learning?
  3. Classroom Space: Each group randomly visits ten classrooms to review and document the physical space: furniture, use of surfaces, door ways, technology, etc.. Utilize a Google Form with observations questions to quickly document findings and Evernote to highlight keys points in each room. Utilize the notebook to document personal reflections.
  4. Informal and Student Spaces: Each group visits a different portion of your school and reviews the learning potential in the hallways, on surfaces, and within various nooks and crannies.Utilize the Google Form to quickly document findings and Evernote to highlight key findings. Each person utilizes their notebook to identify at least one area that could be repurposes as a learning space, either formal or informal.
  5. Knowledge/Learning Commons: Visit common areas to determine how these spaces are configured and used to support the vision for learning. Discuss with learners in these spaces could better be used to support how they learn, how they study, how they socialize, and how they hang out, mess around, and geek out? Document findings via Evernote and Google Form
  6. Outside Learning Spaces: As a group, visit a local coffeehouse, an Apple store, and other innovative spaces. Spend time observing how these spaces are used, discuss with workers how they use the space and see others using it, and discuss with visitors their ideas on the space. Document findings in your notebook unless permission is received to use digital documentation.
  7. Debrief: As a group, review your walk-about findings. Discuss these questions after review: What do your spaces imply about where learning occurs? What do your spaces say about how people learn and how learners are motivated? How are digital spaces and technologies being used to support and amplify physical learning spaces? How do your spaces address this generation’s characteristics? Are there spaces for all learners to learn? What do your spaces say about who drives learning? What do your spaces say about your beliefs and vision of learning? How aligned are your beliefs about learning and teaching with your learning spaces?
  8. Report and Plan(?): Develop a visual report that provides a learning space review based upon your findings. Share this with faculty and discuss whether there is a need to rethink learning spaces to align your learning spaces with the desired pedagogical practices.

Habits and Habitats

Of late, the focus of many educational discussions center on pedagogy, technology, and “21st Century Skills”. However, rethinking the spaces that our learners inhabit eight hours a day, five days a week, and over 180 days a year is just as critical. As Sir Ken Robinson stated, “If we are looking for new pedagogical practices, we have to have facilities that will enable those to happen.”

Thus, it is time to provide the 21st Century Habitats that will foster the desired 21st Century Habits. The question is how will you change the school from a collection of classrooms to a robust multidimensional learning space capable of fostering well-educated, 21st Century citizens?
“Learning spaces encompass the full range of places in which learning occurs, from real to virtual, from classroom to chatroom.” Malcom Brown

“Until people can make their ‘work space’ a learning space, learning will always be a ‘nice idea'— peripheral, not central.” Peter Senge

Ryan Bretag
Blog: Metanoia
Twitter: ryanbretag
Coordinator of Instructional Technology
Glenbrook North High School


cc licensed flickr photo by pixel pro photography south africa: http://flickr.com/photos/albertbredenhann/2451909582/

cc licensed flickr photo by cdsessums: http://flickr.com/photos/csessums/4389889668/

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