A corner, a corridor, a disused space:  why you don’t need to sacrifice a whole classroom to create an agile learning space

If you find the standard classroom layout more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to creative learning you’re not alone,  I have long pondered the effectiveness of the ‘normal’ classroom.  I know for a fact that offering movement and choice to students in their learning environment, and giving them a sense of ownership, is a great way to boost engagement as it encourages them to take responsibility for their learning. More than that, working in an agile environment and having to make choices means students develop the soft skills they need – independence, collaboration, organisation – that we don’t have time to focus on because we’re too busy delivering the curriculum.

Why go agile?

There are odd occasions when you need your students to sit and work quietly at a desk but there are lots of times when you need to work together.  You might be developing stories or characters, giving or receiving feedback or having a discussion.  An environment that enables a variety of working styles makes a much more interesting and better place to learn.  The good news is you don’t have to sacrifice an entire classroom to experience the joys of an agile learning space – you can start small!

How to get started

So, you’re sold on the idea of a more flexible learning environment. But where on earth do you start? How do you fight the status quo of tables and chairs?

For me it was a learning space design competition that set me off down the path that I’m still on today.  There is good evidence around the effectiveness of creative, agile learning spaces so you don’t need to worry about risk.  There is probably more risk in sticking to the status quo and adhering to an outmoded vision of what a classroom ‘should’ look like.  That said, if you start small, you’re more likely to get the go ahead and, once everyone is clamouring to use your brilliant, agile space, you’ll be able to step up a gear.

1. Start small

Any space can be a learning space.  Find a room or area that isn’t used for anything else. This could be an old office, a corridor, a corner, a landing – you don’t need a whole classroom at this stage, just a space you can use.

2. Think about how you could use the space

How might your class or department use the space? For example a section of a corridor makes a great breakout space, an old office could make a great intervention room – discuss with your colleagues and think about the learning styles you want to enable and the skills you want to nurture.

3. Engage your students

It would be impossible to over-emphasise how important this is.  If your students have a sense of ownership over their new learning space they will take more responsibility for their learning, they will be more engaged, excited to learn and they will treat the space with respect.  Talk to your students and ask them how they would like to use this space. This gets them thinking about the process of learning.  Ask them to break down the different learning styles and think about the kind of environment that best supports each one.

4. Think about furniture.

It’s only when you know how you’re going to use the space that you should start thinking about furniture.  Do you need individual or group tables (or individual tables that can be nested together to make a group table?)  Writable surfaces – these are amazing for creative and fun ways to work.  Soft seating?  Comfort is really important (when asked which item of furniture they would bring to school from home, most students will say ‘the sofa’).  Tiered seating is great if you want to use the space for discussion or presentations.  Do some research and find out what’s out there – try and think outside the box.

5. Enable choice

There is no point creating another rigid environment that only offers one layout.  Ultimately you need to enable choice within your new learning space because that is how soft skills develop.  You need to be able to move furniture quickly and easily into new formations that enable the task in hand and you need to be able to accommodate varying numbers of students in the space.

Why going to IKEA isn’t always the best option.

One thing that was difficult when creating our dream classroom was finding furniture we could afford.  A lot of the beautiful pieces available are simply out of reach for many schools.  Why pay the money when you can get something vaguely similar from IKEA at a lower price?  Well, because that IKEA item is not designed to withstand the rigours of a school environment so it’s going to last one year at the most and then make its way to landfill.  Repeat that for a few years and you’d have been better off buying something of better quality that will last for a number of years; it’s far more environmentally friendly and you only have to buy it once which saves time and effort.

One of the reasons I got involved with Learniture was to come up with reasonably priced furniture that has the functionality, quality and durability that schools need.  Schools are tough on furniture so it needs to be able to withstand the onslaught!  I am aware that I am biased but do take a look at Learniture – it’s made in the UK, built for school environments and offers brilliant foundation pieces for an agile learning environment.