Flexibility, Focus, and Flow: Advancing Notions about the Learning Environment


Since completing my book, Evidence Based Design for Elementary and Secondary Schools: A Responsive Approach to Creating Learning Environments, there are still many aspects regarding the learner, the learning, the things to be learned and the places that support these activities that need to be investigated and addressed more comprehensively.  For this reason, I will be examining and extending ideas from my book based on research which I have been conducting that explores the concepts of the active learner and the active learning environment. This series is the first part of three that will describe, examine, and, hopefully advance notions about what a learning environment can be.

Part 1

Envisioning the Learning Environment: Can educational institutions create better learning environments by allowing more informal types of learning settings, where relationships between the learners and the teachers are in focus? 

Before this question can be examined, there are a few concepts within this statement that must be also be explored.  These include:

  1. What are informal types of learning settings?
  2. Do more informal types of learning settings consider a variety of activity settings?
  3. What is meant by teachers and learners are in focus?
  4. Does this statement consider the concept of flexibility?  And if so, what is meant by flexibility?

Informal types of learning settings: Before tackling this concept, a definition of formal learning may be helpful.   Formal learning may be understood in relationship to scientific learning. Scientific learning generally involves acquiring knowledge on specific topics in activity settings designed to support distinct activities and where engagement is peripheral and directed, i.e. block corner, reading corner, lecture hall, and a chemistry laboratory to name a few.  Whereas a formal learning setting requires a distinct place to support certain activities, informal settings are places that might support opportunities for more varied activities.  Within these settings knowledge is distributed between other learners.  Conceptually, these spaces support continuous full engagement of the learner(s). These activity settings may be used to extend learning away from the above described distinct settings and support everyday learning experiences between colleagues, i.e. a café, cafeteria, breakout spaces.  Given this description, why couldn’t formal settings that are distinct and understood as supporting scientific learning be planned and programmed to include zones for everyday learning opportunities? Why can’t these spaces  be programmed for both specific and varied activities?  In order to do this, however, the varied activities must be considered, described and evaluated to determine how the spaces can support them.

Informal types of Learning Settings/Variety of Spaces:  If this is the case - designing spaces that support both scientific learning and everyday learning experiences, what does this space or spaces look like?  Are they studios, classrooms, niches or nooks along corridors, a grand stair, or meeting rooms to name a few?  Maybe they are all of the above and what needs to be considered is creating different spaces that are programmed to support a variety of activities. Furthermore, spaces need to be layered / connected to another / attached to others so that activities can flow between them.  Based on the research, not only are these spaces attached to others, but most importantly they must be defined with specific tools, resources and props so they assist the users in how they approach acquiring either their scientific or everyday learning experiences.  Like project based learning activities, which require a structure to allow learning to unfold, these environments might be designed with certain fixed elements that afford themselves to specific and various activities. Given this, informal types of learning settings might be conceived of as distinct settings that are programmed and planned to support specific types of activities and actions with specific goals in mind.  

 Focus: Although a variety of settings acknowledges spaces as separate form one another, it can also imply that these defined spaces are integrated / connected.  Not only can learners flow / be fluid / between, but also they are in view of one another. For example break-out / push out zones can be designed along a corridor as well as around a grand stair to support smaller social grouping (no more than five).  These activity settings become extensions from the studios / classrooms / instructional spaces, but are within proximity and view of the facilitator and the other learners.   These spaces are never isolated, but rather are visually accessible or in focus so that the more expert leaner / facilitator is in able to focus / support / provide guidance when needed for the transfer of everyday learning experiences into scientific learning experiences.   

 Flexibility: Within the informal types of learning settings, flexibility must be understood beyond the ability of being able to seamlessly arrange and re-arrange furniture.  For the social environment, flexibility becomes a mind-set establishing and reinforcing values for the milieu of the learning community.  Flexibility involves the ability to negotiate space, as well as how to find the affordances from the constraints that exist within the learning environment.  For this reason when programming and planning spaces, flexibility may be considered:

  • A setting that encourages the continual arrangements and re-arrangement of the props, resources, and tools to support a variety of social groupings;  
  • A setting where the specific props and resources are fixed and features of these props and resource can be re-configured to support the  variety of social groupings ( independent and small group) as they work through the project at hand; or
  • A setting where all specific features are semi-fixed and there is space to promote opportunities for either independent, on-to-one, small group or large groups.  In this setting, the learner(s) are intended to adjust in the space based on the work of the tasks at hand. 

Building on this and what was indicated above, can studios, classrooms, and instructional areas support one or all of these flexible activity settings?  Or, are these spaces designed only to support one of them?  Should the extended areas/ activity settings that support smaller social groupings support one or all them of them?  Can these settings all exist within the same learning community? Furthermore, the concept of flexibility must be understood in relation to integration of the learning environment (social and physical); for, flexibility exists with the users and their ability to connect with the physical environment and being motivated to learn by becoming activated and active in how they acquire knowledge. 

So, now we understand the concepts behind informal learning, where to from here? Part 2 will examine what it means to be activated and become an active learner. The question framing this next section will be: what is involved with becoming an active leaner?  

Peter Lippman

EIW Architects

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