Spaces Where Learners Flourish

Spaces where learners flourish are spaces of discovery and possibility, where imagination and creativity are nurtured, where learners engage deeply and meaningfully with each other and the world, where learners have room to discover and pursue their passions under the loving guidance of adults who share the learning space.

I believe most good teachers want to create such spaces for their learners. However, far too often school policies, structures, and unexamined assumptions push teachers to “operate as if everything a child needs to know is on one piece of paper” and that teachers need to “tear little scraps off that piece of paper and hand them across a desk to the child, who eventually has the sum total of the one piece of paper” (OWP/P Architects). This is, of course, a caricature. However, it may come closer to describing learning spaces in which more learners find themselves than we would like to admit. Do learners flourish under such an approach?

A few years ago a group of us came together to explore innovative educational practices that might have the power to transform the way we “do schooling.” (“Spaces Where Learners Flourish” is an ongoing collaborative project by Elaine Brouwer, Bill de Jager, Joanne den Boer, Jeff Kiers, and Tim Krell.) We discovered amazing stories from across the globe. However, when it came time to share what we were learning, we grappled with the baggage and limitation of the words we commonly use in educational circles.

When we talk about teaching and learning, for instance, we are conditioned to visualize activities within the four walls of a classroom (although the recent explosion of digital devices and Web 2.0 technologies are beginning to make inroads here). However, Steve Wheeler said in a webinar on The Future of Web 2.0 Technologies in Learning that only 20 percent of what young people learn happens in the classroom. Where does the other 80 percent happen and how? What do those learning spaces look like? How do they teach? Perhaps if we change our language from “classrooms” to “spaces,” we may be able to think more broadly and deeply about how and where learning occurs.

Similarly, when we talk about students, we tend to think in terms of young people who attend an educational institution to engage in academic learning. The reality is much richer than this. The young people we teach are “sacred, divine dirt clods that possess untold power and strength because they have been breathed into by the creator God” (Bell). By their very nature, young people are always learning. They learn from the structure of the learning environment, from educational procedures and processes, from relationships with people and the broader world, and from structured and unstructured experiences. The question is not if they are learning, but what they are learning. Perhaps if we discipline ourselves to talk and think in terms of “learners” rather than the narrower term “students,” we might be prompted to think more carefully about what the learner is learning both in formal and informal situations, inside and outside of school.

Just as discourse about the where, how, and who of learning needs to be opened up, so too does discourse about indicators of learning. National, provincial, and state initiatives pepper that discourse with talk of meeting standards and raising test scores. In reaction, some assessment organizations have offered procedures that are more immediately embedded in the learning process, but somehow the discussion still ends up in the “meeting the standards” and “raising test scores” camp. What if the most important question we ask about learning and the learner was simply this: Is this learner flourishing? Immediately, we would have to grapple with the question of what it means for learners to flourish—for this particular learner to flourish. Now we have a different kind of conversation.

The point being that language is important. The words we use can open up possibilities or restrict our thinking and practices to the familiar. Possibilities lie in wait when we talk in terms of “spaces where learners flourish.” Now for a few stories from the many we gathered.

Outdoor Space

What was taken for granted when I was growing up—unstructured time outdoors to play, explore, discover, build—is no longer the case for increasing numbers of children. Many children have little if any meaningful connection with nature. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, uses the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from nature—diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses and feelings of isolation and containment (430). Research continues to accumulate regarding the necessity of contact with nature for healthy child and adult development.

Given these growing insights, it seems wise to “send them outside” and to “take class outside.” Here are two glimpses of what taking class outside might look like. The first story is of sixth graders in Berkley, California, who are creating an edible school yard <>. The second story is about fourth graders in Waterville, Washington, who are engaged in a scientific study in collaboration with the University of Washington about the habits of horny toads  <>.

Indoor Space

Central questions regarding this space are: What is the relationship between the physical environment and what happens inside? or How can our indoor spaces invite and support the kind of learning communities we desire?

Walking into a place can be seen as the practical activity of moving for one place to another. However, it can also be seen as “crossing a threshold” (Uhrmacher 107). Crossing a threshold prompts questions and possibilities. What kind of space am I entering? What kind of work will I do here? What is expected of me in this space? How will I related to others here?

Physical spaces are not inert shells. They communicate; they stimulate; they shape. Therefore considerations of physical space should be considered alongside approaches to teaching and learning when we plan creative options for learners to flourish. We want physical space and teaching/learning activities to work in concert rather than at odds with each other.

What kind of physical spaces do you need to support the kind of learning you desire? Perhaps it is spaces that make learning visible or spaces that signal to the learner that they are the workers in this space and what they do is valuable and important. Perhaps it is project space and space to exhibit and celebrate. We need to look at physical space as a resource.

Here is a story about an elective middle school art class that will stretch your imagination about physical spaces as resource: <>.

Project Space

This last story highlights the need for learners to be engaged in realistic, thought-provoking problems or issues where they are the primary workers, supported by caring, competent adults.

John Abbott contends that “Most of the schools that today’s children attend . . .  were built when the prevailing wisdom assumed that children were born to be taught rather than to learn. . . . The capacity to learn is apparently limitless, but the capacity to be taught depends on who is around to instruct you” (9).  He continues, “If the adolescent is prevented . . . from experiencing and working things out for [her]self, [she] will lose the motivation to be innovative or take responsibility in adult life” (54).

An approach called problem-based learning provides a rich environment in which  learners  acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. Teachers work with students to frame worthwhile questions, structure meaningful tasks, and coach knowledge development and social skills, but the learner takes the lead in solving the problem or addressing the issue.

Here are two clips that show problem-based learning in action:

As we free our imaginations and exercise our communal creativity, we will be able to create more spaces where learners flourish. In so doing we can help our “sacred, divine dirt clod” learners become gardens of delight for our God.

Works Cited

  • Bell, Rob. Breathe. Nooma Films. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
  • Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2008.
  • OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design.  The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning. New York: Abrams, 2010.
  • Uhrmacher, B. “An environment for developing souls: the ideas of Rudolf Steiner” in Perez, D., Fain, S. & Slater, J.. Pedagogy of place: seeing space as cultural education. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.