Director of innovation, Stephen Collis, at Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning, answers the question, "What is a flexible learning environment?" Stephen talks about the physical, virtual, and cultural layers that are involved and how they work together to create this environment.
So one way of thinking about a learning environment, is to think of it as consisting of three layers, a physical layer, a virtual layer and a cultural layer of space. And then you can scan the space and think about the space through those layers, and have a look at what’s going on, and what you’d like to go on in the space.
So, the physical layer is fairly obvious, it has furniture, walls, it might have storage and resources, and we might talk about the furniture of physical space. But then you can also scan a space through the lens of virtual space by which, in an obvious way, technology is part of virtual space, but I think you can also include things we don’t think of as technology, even books, handwriting, posters, post-it notes.
Virtual space is in fact any media or mechanism that allows information to flow through the environment.
The third layer is cultural space. That is, very simply, the headspace of the people who inhabit the learning environment, the students, perhaps the teachers of course, and maybe parents and others who are part of that community. And in the same way that we can talk about furniture in physical space, we can talk about the furniture in virtual space, and the furniture in cultural space. An example of that for cultural space would be, permissions, valued behaviours, routines, self-concept, the way the students and teachers think about what they’re doing and why they’re there.
So we can scan the learning environment in those three layers and we can ask ourselves in all three layers, “What are the affordances and the constraints of the way we have set up the learning environment?”. What can sometimes happen, is that the layers are in conflict with each other. The physical space might be saying, “Constraint, constraint, constraint”, and indeed the cultural space, the rhythms, routines and rules might be saying, “Constraint, constraint”, and then the virtual layer, which is by nature often very empowering, technology is very empowering, might be saying something entirely different and a lot of conflict can occur in a learning environment, quite a crisis can occur if the layers aren’t saying the same thing.
The solution to that is of course to step back, scan all three layers, and align them around the question of well, how do we want to be? What matters here? What affordances do we want in the learning environment? In our experience, the students with particularly pronounced needs in a flexible learning environment can actually have more of what they need, more of the time. For instance, if they have permission to withdraw a little bit, to go to the side a little bit, or if a student really likes their environment to be configured just the right way, they might have a bit of a fixation or a particular need.
If they have the freedom, and the capacity to actually organise their environment they way they would like that, if a student loves noise, or has to be moving to be learning, or has to be quiet to be learning, in fact that’s the very heart of a flexible learning environment, is space for everybody. What an exciting challenge to say well, “Let’s make more space for more of the people more of the time”, and any baby step, any creating of space for people to work the way they need to is going to be a good thing.