Reflections on flexible learning spaces

Dr Leon Benade, Auckland University of Technology

Should we be encouraging the use of flexible learning spaces? What I have noticed, in various flexible learning spaces that I have visited in the past few years, has included:

  • A more relaxed learning atmosphere, and productive student discussion;
  • The denial of the ‘teacher-at-the-front’, stand and deliver, or unitary focal point;
  • Increased spatial volumes permitted by design and flexible furniture (creating a look similar to an airport concourse, for example);
  • Intensified instances of collaborative and self-directed student work (behind which lies considerable and careful teacher preparation);

The thrust of my research into flexible learning spaces in 2015/6 focussed on the question, ‘What is it to be a teacher in the 21st century?’ I found the answer in the ways that my teacher participants interacted with a range of environments that enable or reflect significantly different teaching practices to those traditionally associated with single-cell classrooms. This includes radically deprivatised and collaborative practices that focus on delivering connected and integrated curriculum experiences geared to providing students with maximal self-direction and autonomy. I continue to be interested, too, in how teachers reflect on these dynamics that impact on their daily working lives (see my critical article on Teaching as Inquiry in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies).

The idea, in particular, that learning spaces (not ‘classrooms’, note) be designed to accommodate, say, around 90 students and three teachers working in a team, is, as I noted above, a significant departure from traditional practice. Before responding to what I have just said by claiming, “Oh, that’s not new— open plan learning was tried in the 60’s and failed”, let me say that I tend to hear this response from those who wish to hear no more of what I am saying to them. Dealing with resistant attitudes is one (important) part of the narrative. A quick response, however, is to say there are differences:

  • We did not have the digital and mobile technology then.
  • Educators had very fixed ideas about teaching and learning then (mainly transmission models).
  • School environmental design (buildings and furniture) were rigid and inflexible (and unhealthy) then.
  • Furthermore, in the old open plan model of the past, the teachers often taught independently (essentially, multiple classes being taught separately in one big space).

Little wonder, then, that the previous experiment did not last long, and schools quickly reverted to the single cell model (what Stephen Heppell calls ‘cell, bell, hell’). People like Heppell have, however, long questioned this conventional approach to schooling and higher education (where lecturers teach what they have known and experienced themselves). Surprisingly, however, apart from the likes of Heppell, who at least has a background in education, it has been left to non-educators to force the pace of change. For example, Prakash Nair, an architect, claimed that the ‘classroom is obsolete’, and the firm he represents, Fielding Nair International has a robust international profile in the area of educational design.

Since around 2008, the New Zealand Ministry of Education has been increasingly committed to building schools that reflect advances in school environmental design, beginning with such schools as Albany Senior High School, Ormiston Senior College and Stonefields Primary. Several more have followed, and the pace of building (both new and refurbished) flexible learning areas has increased dramatically across the country.

Despite its capital investment in this building programme, however, the Ministry of Education does not provide support or direction with regard to pedagogy and classroom practice within flexible learning spaces, apart from providing several case studies on its website. The Ministry prefers to leave decisions about the use of these learning spaces to individual schools to decide.

Conversely, however, the underlying thinking of the Ministry of Education (or at least its property division) is that design change will alter the mind-sets and attitudes of teachers (see, for example, Goal 2 on page 13 of its School Property Strategy 2011-2021). A further underpinning factor is related to advances in the development of educational furniture that emphasises flexibility (creating pedagogical variety) and that contributes to student health and well-being. For instance, furniture design expert, Paul Cornell advocated on behalf of ‘user-centered’ furniture design  that addresses comfort, health and safety,  that is usable, has psychological appeal and is functional. He claimed (somewhat controversially) that:

In the knowledge economy, where learning is not only continuous but also more informal and serendipitous, anything that makes the experience more positive will also increase learning … furniture is more than a place to sit; it can be a strategic asset. (p. 42)

Time will be the judge of whether these emerging design and pedagogical shifts will benefit students and teachers, or whether the only beneficiary will be the discourse of the knowledge economy and lifelong learning.

Leon square.jpgLeon Benade has research interests in teachers’ work, school policy, ethics, philosophy in schools, critical pedagogy, and the New Zealand Curriculum. His current research focuses on how ’21st-century learning’ impacts the work of teachers and school leaders, particularly in relation to the establishment of Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) and digital pedagogies. Related areas of interest include the question of teachers’ critical reflective practice and the evolving role and nature of the concept of ‘knowledge’ in the 21st century curriculum.


  1. Excellent article, Dr Benade. I teach at AEF Schools in Fort Lauderdale. My classroom is the Primary Learning Center (PLC) for special needs students ages 6-9. We are in the proces of converting my classroom to a “flexible learning space.” I will send you photographs and will let you know how our students respond to their new environment.
    Thank You
    Sonja Mentz


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