Monday, October 29, 2012

Furniture: you can have too much of a good thing

Recently a university researcher spent a couple of days in a learning hub with year 2-4 students. “Did you realize…”, he said afterwards, “..that at any one time, a third of students are sat on the floor?”

It was an interesting observation- the children weren’t sat there through necessity, it was through choice. It suited the learning they were doing at the time. Over the next few days I went through the hub at different times of the day and would certainly agree with the observation.

In the past I’d taught in a classroom of thirty students- with thirty desks, thirty chairs, half a dozen desktop computers on a bench down the side- each with a stool, a teaching station where there were always half a dozen children or so, some low kneeler benches that a few students were always drawn to as well as a small couch in the reading corner. When I think about it now I consider I had seats for well over forty children. No wonder perhaps, that at times, moving around the space was challenging. The trick therefore is not to simply replace existing furniture with a similar amount of new furniture. The empty space is important- it becomes space for learning and space for flow.

Suppliers are putting a lot of thought into designing for flexible and innovative learning environments. They are considering contemporary pedagogies and the styles of furniture that best facilitate learning. When looking at what’s on offer though it’s important to think about specific learning experiences and what you need in order for them to succeed- before deciding what type of furniture is going to be most suitable. What type of activity will the students be engaged in? How many students will be working in the particular learning setting, and for how long? What access will they need to technology and resources? What relationship do you want to encourage between students and the teacher in this setting?

When you start to work through this exercise it quickly becomes apparent that you don’t need tables and chairs for all. And where you do they may well be of different shapes, sizes and heights. When we purchased a couple of new tables for our older learners recently they requested tall tables, about 900mm, that they could both stand at and sit at high stools. Surprisingly, the five year olds asked for tall tables too. Who’d have thought?

Putting time into selecting the right furniture for the space is important- and it can take a while. But it’s time well spent. As Hodder suggests, “procuring furniture for school is not a simple task, and there is no ‘one- size-fits-all’ solution.” She makes some good recommendations:

·      “Think about the different roles involved in project development and who is involved: getting the right furniture is a collaborative process, not a one-off decision, and should involve conversations with stakeholders and users.
·      Build-in, or double up, on spaces and furniture elements – steps which double as seats, corridors with niches for private study.
·      Do consider how the furniture you choose might support or embed certain pedagogy, including enabling creative use of spaces and imaginative play, or encouraging different types of group working or communication.
·      Don’t just assume the right furniture is out there – in some cases the best results will be achieved by creating something new to fit your school’s particular needs.
·      Equally, don’t feel you have to start from scratch - be inspired by examples from case studies, both within the education sector and further afield.”

One resource that has been really useful has been the Learning Furniture workshop video. It’s been a useful tool to work through, especially the first time furnishing a new space. It’s available from CEFPI.

I know when we furnished new spaces a couple of years ago there was a mindfulness to creating spaces that weren’t too cluttered with furniture- an intentional under-furnishing if you like. We wanted them to be spaces that were easy to move around. Better to begin with not enough furniture than too much. You can always buy more if you need to.


Holder, A. Furniture for Schools. Retrieved from

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Making it Mobile - Auckland event coming very soon

The team from Northern Beaches Christian School are coming to Auckland in November to present a two day workshop entitled Making it Mobile. It will be looking at learning, culture, pedagogy, spaces, collaboration and technology...and much more I'm sure. An enticing recipe for some great professional if ever there was one! Highly recommended.

Details of registration can be found here.

Digital Learning Spaces Webinar

I was fortunate recently to be able to take part in a webinar on Digital Learning Spaces. The idea was to look at the intersection of digital and flexible learning environments, and for me, an opportunity to reflect on how my thinking has shifted over the last couple of years.

The session, organized by Tessa Gray, was presented and recorded on Blackboard Collaborate and is available for viewing here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pushing the boundaries: What might be possible?

Take a look at these: They are images of a Rosan Bosch design for the ‘School without Walls’ in Stockholm.

It’s an extraordinary looking school with beautiful design, custom built furniture, an iceberg that features a cinema, a relaxation room, and multiple spaces for different types of learning. It’s more like a building at Google, Nike or Lego, than it is a school - perhaps reminiscent of any number of the creative business spaces Kursty Groves features in I wish I worked there! There are certainly a lot of similarities.

What is important about seeing designs and schools like this, in my mind, is that it challenges us to consider what might be possible. Of course it may well be out of our financial reality or perhaps not aligned with our own pedagogical vision and belief but it does at the very least expose us to some new and different thinking. It's an example of what one school building does look like, although is very removed from my own experience and until now, what I have stage heard about. 

John Holt’s (1971), and still relevant today, model of Four Worlds reminds us about what we do and what we don’t know.

Julia Atkin (1999) sums it up really well:
“He says that each of us has four such worlds. The first world is the world inside our skin. The second world is the world the individual knows about from direct experience. The third world is the world the individual knows about, but has not experienced in any direct way through the senses. The fourth world is the infinite world of possibilities which the individual has not as yet heard of or even envisaged” (p. 14)

Google images of ‘classroom’ and what you end up with is a pretty standard, industrial notion of what a common learning environment looks like. Generally there are rows of desks facing the front and generally, the teacher's at the front. These are familiar images - for many of us the world we are familiar with from direct experience. 

Try ‘learning space’ instead and you find things that are looking a bit more interesting- there are different shapes and sizes of furniture, different learning settings, more obvious technology and a generally more open feel to the spaces - this for many teachers is the world that we have heard about but as yet haven’t got personal experience of.

But as teachers and educators as well as designers, how do we know what we don’t know, in terms of what schools and classrooms might look like? It's the same working with children on imagining future learning spaces too. What comes next? How can we start looking into that fourth world of infinite possibilities? 

Beautiful Learning Spaces is definitely a great place to start. There are some stunning school designs featured here that will push our thinking in terms of what might be possible. Many are featured on architects and educational websites but here they have been collected together in one place. There are also videos being added too. It's a quickly growing resource, being curated by @acampbell99 and @Jennzia  I really look forward to seeing this site grow and the world of infinite possibilites explored further. 


Atkin, J. (1999, August). Values for a learning community: Learning to know. Paper presented at the meeting of the Victorian Principals' Conference, Melbourne. Retrieved from
Groves, K. (2010). I Wish I worked There! Chichester, UK: Wiley.
Holt, J. (1971). What do I do Monday? London: Pitman.

Image of ‘School without Walls’ from
Image of John Holt's four worlds from Atkin, J. (1999, August). Values for a learning community: Learning to know.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Minecraft for designing learning spaces?

Gathering student voice about existing and possible spaces has been a big part of a consultation phase prior to designing more learning hubs. Finding out what children like or would like to improve about current spaces is valuable information that is really going to help inform what happens next.

Ensuring that we’d got a variety of media for children to work in was important, so we’d gone into spend the afternoon with a group of Year 5-8 students, armed with large sheets of paper, cardboard, marker pens, scissors, templates of existing rooms, Lego, cameras and the like. Sketchup was available on a number of devices too. However the very first request I got when asked to put some possible ideas forward was ‘Could we do this on Minecraft?’

Fortunately we teach in a time when it’s ok not to be the expert and this was certainly the case here. I’d seen children using Minecraft – there’s often a group in the library exchanging ideas at lunchtime- but hadn’t recognized the potential as a means for expressing ideas about space. Because that’s want I believe this phase of the consultation is about. It’s allowing children to engage in discussion about space using a media that they are fluent at working in.

Whilst the drawings or constructions students produced are important artifacts, it’s actually the dialogue that accompanies them that is the critical part of the learning. Freeman and Mathison (2009) consider when drawing as a research tool, that “Drawings are especially valuable when combined with additional interpretation provided by participants” (p. 114). Dixon and Senior refer to the fact that they took notes of conversations while children were engaged in drawing places they learn at school (Blackmore et al., 2011).

The same concept can equally be applied to using Minecraft. It’s not about just what students constructed, it was about the conversations they had during and after. So it was left to a group of Year 6 learners to show me the light! And they certainly did. Learning spaces were quickly modeled and remodeled, constructed and improved. Screenshots were taken from multiple angles and pretty soon my email was overflowing with images. This, I am assured is just the start- just wait for the narrated 3D flythroughs!

Blackmore, J., Aranda, G., Bateman, D., Cloonan, A., Dixon, M., Loughlin, J., et al. (2011). Innovative Learning Environments through New Visual Methodologies. Melbourne: Deakin University Retrieved from

Freeman, M., & Mathison, S. (2009). Researching children's experiences. New York, London: The Guilford Press.

Images courtesy of Jackson and Lachlan