Spaces are what you make of them

Jordan Fenton – Principal, East Lake School – Numerous times this year people have suggested that it must be nice being in a new building, as East Lake School is only in its fifth year compared to others I have worked in dating as far back as being built 1961. My reply is always the same, “it’s not the space you have, but how you use it that is key to student learning.” Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to have the flexible spaces and modern concepts available in a new building, but if they are utilized and set up the same way as classrooms of the past then their innovation is lost.

Dr. Robert Dillion, an expert on innovative learning space design, surmises, “though furniture can play a role in supporting positive changes through modern learning spaces, racing to buy furniture is also the fastest way to achieve a small impact on learning and perpetuate a fad-chasing culture.” He believes that to truly have an impact we need to ask the essential question, “is the classroom a place where the pursuit of knowledge is central and a place where students create, make and design?” Educators can use this question as a starting point in their purposeful design of learning spaces to help benefit their current students and to set up success for future students.

As we look to create an environment for our learners to become innovators we must be cognizant of the spaces at our disposal. Just as we have all witnessed the marvels of a child’s imagination at play as they use only the materials at hand to create wonderous places and extravagant experiences, we as educators need to use everything at our disposal to enhance learning opportunities. We need to create a designer’s or innovator’s culture, where risk taking and critical thinking go hand-in-hand with the inquisitive nature that burns in children. This can only be impeded by our physical learning environment if we allow it. Like most schools in RVS, East Lake teachers have become creative with their classrooms. Providing their students with movable and flexible floor plans and access to all kinds of learning materials for students to inquire, design create and ultimately learn. The confines of modern classrooms move seamlessly from direct instruction space to makerspace with relative ease to meet the needs of all learners.

Another key to redesigning a learning space that is sometimes overlooked is making use of student voice – redesigning the learning space with students instead of simply for students. This requires both flexibility in the space and in the process. Redesigning the space isn’t about making it look better with new posters and furniture. Think function over fashion, like most of us do when the thermometer drops below -40. Use the redesign of space to bring energy and excitement to the learning environment. Many of our teachers at East Lake, incorporate students in the layout of their learning space by outlining what the activity or learning task will be and then asking the students how that they best feel the space could be used to accomplish the task. This provides opportunities for students to think about how they learn and work best. It never ceases to amaze me how given the opportunity, students even at the youngest grades will advocate for their own learning needs.

Students are enabled to be researchers through inquiry, designers through hands on learning and innovators through the entire learning process, made possible by today’s learning environment.