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Student Autonomy and Flexible-Learning Spaces

by Zak Cohen, Grade 7 Social Studies Teacher at the American International School of Johannesburg



In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari wrote of the structural homogeny of classroom environments around the world, citing rows of desks facing the front of the room.  Neil Selwyn, in his book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, echoed this sentiment by suggesting that the rigidity of classroom environments is antithetical to what we know about learning. In fact, all one really has to do is scroll Twitter to find practitioners, policymakers, and theorists making this same argument: the days of the desks are numbered.


From experience, I can tell you that there are a lot of educators on the front lines of making this thinking actionable. Recently, I was touring a school and found a tire swing in the middle of an elementary school classroom. Just down the hall, I found hanging gardens lining the walls of a middle school homeroom. From reading nooks to conferencing pods, classrooms are beginning to look more like Google offices than they do our classic conception (ie the music video for Another Brick in the Wall).


And yet, as cool as these cutting-edge classrooms are, there is one question that continues to interest me: is cool correlated to learning?


When speaking to the teacher with the tire swing in her classroom, she shared that given its popularity, she now has a schedule for who can use it and when it can be used. Minutes later, I observed a teacher in another classroom redirecting a student who had sought to do independent research in one of their designated reading nooks, because it “wasn’t reading time.”


Flexible-learning spaces are a widely-cited dimension of a personalized learning environment, but if teachers are dictating when and how students use the novel features of the space, what makes a tire swing any better than a row of desks?


Said another way, what’s the value of “personalized” if it is anchored to compliance rather than “learning?”

Ultimately, flexible-learning spaces shouldn’t be about what we do for students; it should be about what students do for themselves. Too often, we speak of flexible-learning spaces as something that a teacher can envision or a school’s capital campaign can raise, but the purpose of personalized learning is to empower students; thus, when we think of flexible-learning spaces, we should think of how students can creatively, thoughtfully, and intentionally repurpose their learning environment to facilitate learning.


In my classroom, I tell students that my classroom is nothing more than a life-size Lego set. Students have the freedom construct or change anything they’d like, so long as it’s done for the purpose of their learning. Sometimes this means designing a standing desk, other times it means using chairs as tables, and in other instances it means drafting an outline on the classroom windows.


I see my role as providing students with the blank canvas -- that being the three hexagonal tables in my room and six rectangular tables that we use for Harkness discussions -- while their job is to leverage the autonomy provided and manipulate the space to meet their fluid, individual  preferences. In this way, students are learning not just where they learn best or with whom they learn best, but how they learn best.


Here are several ideas for how to move to a model of flexible learning that puts students in the driver’s seat:


Coach, don’t criticize

Students have been instructed on where to sit, and when to sit there, for most, if not all, of their school career; therefore, it needs to be understood and accepted that there is a steep learning curve when students are suddenly afforded the autonomy to tailor the learning environment to meet their learning needs. For many students, they may not even be aware of the impact that space can have on their learning, since they have learned in spite of their classroom environment, not because of it, for so long. For this reason, students need support in navigating this novel approach. While we have many options for how to go about this, I have found that a coach’s mentality -- firm, fair, and patient -- can be quite helpful in delivering the sort of guidance that students need to maximize their learning with this approach.


Model, Model, Model

When doing my work, there are times when I like to sit cross-legged on the floor and other times when I’d rather sit at a table. Students need to see this in action. I often present students with these scenarios, and verbalize my thought-process while moving from one place in the room to another. Additionally, students have to see that it’s truly OK to manipulate their learning environment. Remember: for most students, they are not accustomed to flipping a table or moving chairs. By doing this yourself, students start to see that the room really is nothing more than a Lego set.


Learning-oriented

Students are making decisions about how to manipulate the space  based on their learning target. In my class, students are expected to reflect on the space where they are working each time their learning target changes. For example, a student might start class sitting in a beanbag chair because they are watching a video; but, when they  move on to summarize what they’ve watched, the bean bag is no longer the optimal place for their learning. As such, students must make a new decision about where to work that will best facilitate their learning.


Systems lead to success

The presence and absence of certain systems in our classes implicitly signals to students what we value. A classroom that is driven by deadlines will not be the sort of learning environment where students feel comfortable taking that extra minute to purposefully manipulate the space. For flexible-learning spaces to serve as a leverage point in cultivating increasingly independent learners, the systems of the class have to reinforce this goal. In my class, for example, learning is structured using mastery-based progressions. We do not have grades, or deadlines.


Ask yourself what systems you have in your class that are preventing students from making the most of the space.


Zachary Cohen is an international educator who has lived and taught in Morocco, China, South Africa, and the United States. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.

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