Learning to learn: how choice and movement in learning spaces leads to greater student engagement

Classroom teacher and Learniture co-founder, Juliette Heppell, shares her first-hand experience of the impact of creative learning spaces and explains why she got involved with designing furniture for next-generation learning spaces.

If you’ve ever felt that traditional classrooms are a sub-optimal environment for learning, you’re not alone.  I have long wondered why ‘normal’ learning spaces are so boring and mono-functional when learning is the exact opposite.  Why are classrooms so inflexible and difficult to change when we, as teachers, need to be agile and adaptable? How does this rigid environment enable us to accommodate fluctuating student numbers and the ever-growing demands of a super-tight curriculum?  How does a room full of immobile tables and chairs enable and inspire learning?

I had an opportunity to explore this when working with a group of children who were simply not engaged with learning.  I asked them when was the last time they had fun learning and they all referred to experiences they had had at primary school – none of them mentioned specific schemes of work or lessons that were engaging at secondary school.  They had disengaged and I knew that had to change.  How could I get them to take ownership of their learning? To feel inspired and engaged again? To do better?

Learning to learn

The answer came through a project by our local City Learning Centre in Hounslow called I Dream of Learning.  We embarked upon a journey where a group of students were tasked with designing their own classroom.  To do that they had to figure out how learning happens; they needed to understand the process of learning.  So they started asking questions, conducting research and talking to their peers, families, teachers, architects, designers and companies in the UK and further afield to find out how people learn, whether that’s at home, at work, in school or wherever they happen to be.

What they realised was what they thought a classroom ‘should’ be was actually no good for learning.  This resonated with me because I’d already started to question things I had taken for granted (the standard classroom layout) but had no evidence for (does it actually work? Is it an effective tool for learning?). I started to wonder why were we not questioning the mono-functional rigidity of the average classroom and its lack of adaptability?

Like most classroom teachers I didn’t get out much to see what other schools were doing or how other classrooms worked, either locally or globally. So, I did my own research and discovered innovative and different approaches to learning environments that were fully evidenced (unlike exhibit A – the Victorian schoolroom approach).  There was, and is, no risk to taking a more creative approach, which is hugely important for schools whose appetite for change and risk is usually minimal.  The evidence is out there.

Movement and choice

The classroom my students designed for the I Dream of Learning competition, based on their extensive research, enabled movement and choice as well as delivering comfort and a calm environment; tiered seating, writable surfaces, sofas, a variety of moveable chairs, individual tables for working alone and larger ones for working collaboratively, all of it with fully integrated technology and most of it agile.  For students with behaviour issues, being able to move around was incredible – no more fidgeting in their seat, they could choose where best to work. All the students who used this classroom found that the environment meant they had to take ownership and responsibility for their work and their work changed for the better as a result.

Put simply: students get better grades if they understand learning and how it happens.  Give them a learning environment that presents them with responsibility and choice and they will rise to the challenge.  They might start off sitting on a sofa but quickly realise that’s not the right place for the task in hand so they have to take the decision to move and get the job done in the appropriate place.

While working on this project I met James Clarke, now Director of Learniture, and saw his work.  James supported us when delivering the I Dream Of Learning Classroom (we won the competition and were granted funding to bring the design to life) and helped us refine our ideas.  This classroom was the most popular room in school because it made learning collaborative and interactive in a way that simply isn’t possible in an ordinary space.  We continued to engage successive groups of students in the project, maintaining that sense of ownership and responsibility and after four years’ continual use the classroom was still free of graffiti.  It only started to suffer when the student engagement stopped, which is a testament to the power of ownership

Why I got involved with Learniture

I know first-hand the extraordinary impact of a creative learning environment that offers movement and choice and I wanted to find a way to enable other schools to benefit.  James was working with my Dad, Professor Stephen Heppell, to design a collection of furniture pieces that would deliver the key elements of an agile, creative learning space at a price that was accessible to all.  Asked if I would help I was only too delighted to become involved.

The resulting Learniture collection provides the building blocks for an agile, responsive learning environment.  I know we can’t all transform an entire classroom but we can take the basic principles of choice and movement and integrate furniture elements that enable them.

In my next blog we’ll look at how to turn a disused space into agile learning space so you can start to see how next-generation learning spaces could work for you.