Is the debate around “open-plan” classrooms missing the point?

With “open-plan” designs being debated and increasing levels of student disengagement and attendance refusal, Australian schools are at a crossroads. So what does the ideal learning environment look like? We speak to Dr Fiona Young, Principal at Hayball architecture, about why classrooms need to evolve to support creativity, critical thinking, and communication.

When it comes to education, there is no one-size-fits all approach. Every student learns differently and in turn requires something different from their classroom. The built environment is only one factor to consider when we look to the future of schooling in Australia, but it is a very important one. Research shows it can impact achievement, engagement, attendance, behaviour and teacher and student wellbeing.

“If broader diversity of space exists with the ability to use it more,” says Dr. Young, “then we are catering for a much wider range of students and hopefully having less disengaged students as a result.”

A modern classroom needs to reflect modern skills

The industrial model classroom was designed to teach students the skills they were required to gain employment in the mid-20th century: the ability to work rapidly for hours, memory detail and arithmetic skills. In contrast, by 2025 it’s predicted that the most important skills a student will need are capacity for analytical thinking and innovation, complex problem solving and creativity, originality and initiative. It makes sense that our learning practices and classrooms evolve to best develop these skills. 

“The focus is now on deep learning – the opposite of rote learning, it's about the student making sense of content and being able to translate it in other ways,” explains Dr.Young. “So, how do you teach creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration? It's not just sitting in a classroom, rows of desks listening to the person at the front…you need to be enabling more collaboration in the classroom and exploring using pedagogical practices that enable students to explore and connect ideas.” 

Agility, flexibility and adaptability

The spaces best suited to support deep learning are Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) – learning spaces designed to support student-centred learning, that facilitate collaborative and independent learning and teaching practices, as well as explicit teaching.

While an ILE factors in more than physical space, the question still remains: how can we best design classrooms to help achieve deep learning? 

 “I've always worked with the terms, agility, flexibility, and adaptability,” says Dr. Young. 

Adaptability is about the long term use of a school environment. So, while the shell of a building may be fixed, ideally you should be able to easily change its use over time to reflect shifting needs – both a cost-effective and sustainable measure. Agility is the ability for a space, a piece of furniture or a teaching aid to be utilised in different ways. Flexibility refers to spacial qualities that can be easily changed via modular furniture choices.

“This flexibility is important because it is what's supporting your greater spatial diversity, which is high on the list of physical qualities that support deep learning outcomes,” says Dr. Young.

Koskela’s innovative Learn range was designed with these principles of flexibility and adaptability in mind. All the furniture – including tables, seating and screening elements – is adaptable and can be reconfigured to suit different teaching methods and learning needs. Some great examples of this include our Juha white board which functions as both a practical learning tool and wall divider, and our modular quadrant soft sofa range. Each piece in the range has also gone through three years of extensive research and development, including real world testing and collaboration with educators, to ensure it meets the needs of teachers and students. 

"The focus is now on deep learning – the opposite of rote learning, it's about the student making sense of content and being able to translate it in other ways."

- Dr. Fiona Young

What does a hybrid learning environment look like?

This is all well and good in theory, but how can a progressive, modular learning space actually be put into practice? Dr. Young speaks of one public primary school she visited where an ILE was set up that defined three spaces as “campfire”, “cave”, or “watering hole.” Each space provided the children with a different mode of learning – i.e. solitary, group, or a directed session. And if a student wanted to sit on a large table with classmates, but still do their independent work and not be disturbed, they could use a card labelled “cave,” to show their classmates they were in a more solitary mode.

“This is a great example of having much more diversity and openness to give you the opportunity you want,” says Dr. Young. “But also having the practice and the protocols in place to enable a space to work for you.”

Koskela has collaborated with many schools to help design learning spaces that are innovative, modular and adaptable. A great example is the prototype classrooms we worked on with Sydney’s Newington College, where the aim was to rethink the use and different needs of classrooms for humanities and maths students. Our redesign of the library and science rooms at Abbotsleigh also highlights this flexible approach. Here, Koskela provided a range of custom finishes and school furniture items, to allow multiple  layouts and configurations, depending on the lesson and the desired learning outcome. 

Abbotsleigh School Library

Abbotsleigh School Library

Abbotsleigh science lab

“To support good learning and those 21st century skills of collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity, what's really important is having diversity –  a range of different types of learning settings and spaces,” says Dr. Young. “And furniture does play a key part in enabling the types of spaces that support deep learning.”

Interested in learning more about flexible learning spaces? Get in touch today, and we will connect you with one of our Learn design experts.